He was a strikingly talented guitarist and songwriter, she was a brilliant singer, and on paper it seemed like a marriage made in British folk heaven. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of Richard & Linda Thompson's relationship knows that's not how things worked out, yet few troublesome marriages resulted in as dazzling a body of work as the Thompsons created during their decade together. Richard's dour yet beautiful melodies and lyrics that found room for both gloomy introspection and sharp wit rarely found a better interpreter than Linda, she never worked with anyone who consistently gave her stronger material or more impressive instrumental accompaniment, and the yin and yang of their collaboration brought out the very best in one another. Richard and Linda have made splendid music as solo artists, but their best LPs as a pair -- especially 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 1975's Pour Down Like Silver, and 1982's Shoot Out the Lights -- are career-defining masterpieces ranking with the finest electric folk of the '70s and '80s. As celebrated as their work has been, the 2020 box set Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982 is the first comprehensive effort to chronicle the entirety of their work together.
The set includes their six studio albums in full -- Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey, Pour Down Like Silver, First Light, Sunnyvista, and Shoot Out the Lights -- with each featuring bonus material, as well as highlights of their work together prior to Bright Lights, and a full disc of live performances. Listened to in full, Hard Luck Stories is more than the sum of its very impressive parts. During this period, Richard's songwriting gained worlds of skill and confidence, maturing from playful eccentricity to songs of faith that waver between desperation and devotion, to the final regretful end of the partnership. Linda was a tremendously talented vocalist from the very start, and this set shows her technique and emotional range only improved with time, with the later recordings filled with a hard-won confidence and nuance. Devoted fans will find plenty of gems among the 30 previously unreleased tracks; a few have been bootlegged but never with this clarity (especially the January 1977 concert at London's Theatre Royal), and the alternate take of "The End of the Rainbow" with Linda on lead vocals is just one of the revelatory unheard moments. While improved mastering is something one expects from a box set, in this case the recordings really do sound noticeably clearer and better detailed, especially First Light, which remains the weakest of the Richard & Linda albums but is far easier to appreciate in refurbished form. Rocky marriages sometimes produce remarkable kids, and in addition to their flesh-and-blood offspring, Hard Luck Stories is evidence Richard & Linda Thompson's union was more than worthwhile. However things ended, they created something truly special, and this is as consistently excellent and rewarding as any box set of the past decade.