Listening to Won't Be Long Now, the inviting new album by Linda Thompson, is like getting reacquainted with an old friend. Or more exactly, it's like spending time with the kind of friend one goes years without hearing from, but upon meeting again, time evaporates, conversation is renewed and a relationship is quickly re-established.
That's the feeling triggered immediately by Love's for Babies and Fools, the lead track to the veteran British vocalist's first recording in six years. The voice you hear is schooled, solemn and profoundly steadfast. It is rich in tone but restrained in execution as it reveals an entire folk history — in Thompson's case, one built on (but not restricted to) British tradition. It is poised but deeply emotive and knows that overplaying the performance is as unwise as it is unnecessary.
But what is so mind-blowing is that in light of a solo career that has yielded only three studio albums since 1985, it's easy for fans to forget just how beautifully unforced and commanding Thompson's singing can be.
Luckily, Won't Be Long Now illuminates such greatness in a typically unassuming manner.
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Granted, Thompson has a couple of battalions of expert help on the album. As a matriarch of sorts to one of the first families of British folk-rock, she enlists a few of her relatives. The most prominent is her son, pop stylist Teddy Thompson. He wrote the album's light-as-air title tune, a decidedly American-sounding song of release that features daughter Kami Thompson, a pair of brilliant stateside instrumentalists (mandolinist David Mansfield and banjo giant Tony Trischka) and the beautiful harmonies of Amy Helm.
Another is former husband and collaborator Richard Thompson, her lone accompanist on Love's for Babies and Fools. As a couple, the Thompsons issued a series of albums in the 1970s that essentially escalated British folk-rock as an art form. But their duo performance here calls as little attention to itself as the rest of Won't Be Long Now. It is subtle and tasteful yet deeply moving.
Beyond that, there are waves of British pals, all members of a British folk dynasty (guitarist Martin Carthy, fiddler Dave Swarbrick and accordionist John Kirkpatrick) and a legion of seemingly newer contemporaries from both sides of the pond (the wonderful guitarist John Doyle, Ollabelle keyboardist Glenn Patscha and current Fairport Convention drummer Gerry Conway).
But mother Thompson remains resolutely in charge of it all, from a harrowing a capella blast of folksy spite (Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk) to the misty ambience that surrounds an original shanty (Never Put to Sea Boys). Through it all, she sings with the hard-won wisdom of a sage and the open warmth of a friend who has returned home.