This is one hell of a package: five thematically-organized discs containing more than 90 rare and unheard takes of Richard Thompson's best songs, from his early career as the shy, curly-haired guitar genius of Fairport Convention all the way to 2005; a 170-page booklet with a track-by-track analysis, 24-chapter biography, and more photos than anyone would know what to do with; the possibility of writing in for an extra disc (which cooks too). It works as an introduction to the work of this enigmatic artist, if you know nothing about it, and it works as a goodie-bag for old-line Thompson freaks, and it just works.
But you don’t even really need all the extra stuff—the songs themselves, and the performances captured here, are strong enough on their own. You get angry bitter miserablist Thompson (“The End Of The Rainbow,” a children’s song in which the moral is that there's no gold there), and happy bouncy fun Thompson (“Tear-Stained Letter”), folk-rock purist Thompson (“Albion Sunrise”), and weird ambiguous Thompson (virtually everything else).
The set makes a good case that he is the best guitar player in the world—especially disc three, subtitled “Epic Live Workouts,” and its triumphant version of “Calvary Cross”—but it makes an even better case for his songwriting. The savage imagery of "Feel So Good" belongs right alongside the hilarious children’s song “My Daddy Is A Mummy,” and both help to ground the unbearable sadness of “Crazy Man Michael.” It's a convincing argument for maximalism. It is clear, by now, that Thompson will never break through into the mass consciousness. But as this boxed set proves, it was not for lack of trying, or talent, or heart. We just didn't deserve a world that would be so cool as to have Richard Thompson for a star.