Richard Thompson has never had a for-real hit record (at least not in America) over the course of a career that's spanned five decades, but there are few musicians who are better respected by their peers or have a more devoted fan base, and not without reason -- he's a fine singer, a superb, inventive guitarist, and a truly masterful songwriter. This may explain why Thompson, a man who could best be described as a "cult figure," is being honored with his third multi-disc box set. The 1993 set Watching the Dark was a brilliant overview of Thompson's body of work that included classic songs from all phases of his career along with rare live material, unreleased studio sessions, and even a few new songs. Released in 2006, RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson took a very different approach, instead collecting five discs' worth of unreleased material drawn from Thompson's own tape archives, which seemed designed to please obsessive fans at the expense of those who wanted a reasonably clear picture of the arc of his career. And now, Walking on a Wire: 1968-2009 takes the opposite extreme -- it's a four-disc set that offers a carefully edited and intelligently compiled chronological summary of Thompson's recorded repertoire, from his early recordings with Fairport Convention to his 2007 solo album, Sweet Warrior. However, it doesn't feature a single recording that hasn't been released before, and the few tracks that could pass as rarities come from "authorized bootlegs" Thompson has released through his fan club and website (nearly all still easily available).
For many artists, this wouldn't be quite such a severe failing, but with rare exceptions a four-disc box set is most likely to be purchased by an artist's most loyal fans, and there's almost nothing on Walking on a Wire that wouldn't already be in the collection of a serious Richard Thompson aficionado, making this anthology seem both beautiful and redundant. But if you're looking for a convincing argument for Thompson's status as one of the great treasures of British rock and folk, Walking on a Wire succeeds beautifully. The programming gleans many of the most satisfying and significant moments from Thompson's recordings, and the material flows beautifully from one great track to the next, clearly reflecting the path his music has followed. The remastering is excellent, particularly on the earlier solo material, and Patrick Humphries' liner notes offer a superb thumbnail sketch of Thompson's life and music, while the booklet is filled with great rare photos. As the biggest and most comprehensive "Best of Richard Thompson" album ever, Walking on a Wire succeeds beautifully, and it's a wonderful and loving presentation of his art. But if you're already a fan, this will all seem very familiar, and while this is a splendid starting point for the uninitiated, persuading them they should start their Richard Thompson collection with a four-disc box set will probably be an uphill battle -- though it's hard to imagine anyone who appreciates music that speaks honestly to the heart and soul not falling in love with this.