erasing clouds

Book Review: Hayden Childs, Shoot Out the Lights (33 1/3 Series)

by dave heaton

The obvious route to take with a book on Richard & Linda Thompson’s classic 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights is the biographical one. It’s a tough, sad, almost nasty divorce album made by a married couple who were undergoing their own relationship drama and soon enough split. It’s an album that almost cannot be mentioned by critics or music fans without also telling the corresponding story of its creators’ own turmoil, an album that for many takes on greater stature because of that very backstory.

In his book on the album, part of Continuum’s excellent 33 1/3 Series of books on albums, Hayden Childs takes the biographical approach in part. He does a good job telling the basic story of the album’s recording within the context of the Thompsons’ personal lives. But a larger part of the book takes a literary-criticism approach, looking carefully at each lyric, what it may mean within the song and the album, and sometimes how it relates to other literary works. Another part of his approach is fiction, courtesy of a narrative device where our narrator is a failed musician, with a failed marriage, who imagines that Richard Thompson is his more successful doppelganger, and who has written this book after reciting it into a tape recorder as he drives across country, experiencing a hurricane along the way.

Those two approaches – literary criticism and fiction – come together through what in a way is Childs’ central thesis: that Shoot Out the Lights resembles Dante’s Inferno . Shoot Out the Lights the book thus is set up to also resemble that portion of The Divine Comedy, with Childs’ fictional main character Virgil going through his own dark journey. This fictional device is a unique one, but to me not especially successful. The parallels that Virgil sees with Thompson’s life seemed forced – that is, Virgil as a character seems more an idea than a person. His personality is lightweight enough that it’s hard to even remember that he’s your guide through this album and not Childs. The obviously fictional portion, the part where you’re aware that Virgil is ‘speaking’, comes intermittently between what otherwise is a scholarly work on Thompson’s album, a song-by-song analysis.

The analysis itself is compelling for how closely it sticks to the lyrics, and for how well Childs understands them. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard “Wall of Death”, but somehow most of the amusement-park references slipped past me; after reading Childs’ thorough study of that song, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how little I’ve really thought about the song before, despite loving it. Childs’ descriptions of the music offer less of a new understanding, and tend to lean towards conventional, even clichéd observations (for example, “He’s just that good” or “…and when they chime, it’s like if the Byrds hadn’t existed, these guitars would have invented them.”) It’s the lyrics that Childs seems most comfortable examining, and it’s to the book’s success that, at the end of the day, a close look at the lyrics of Shoot Out the Lights does take up the most significant amount of space. At its essence this is an intent, even intense, look at Thompson’s careful, multi-layered lyric-writing, plus an enthusiastic, if not revelatory, appreciation for his musical gift.


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