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For years after that, it felt as though Thompson was writing and rewriting the same angry fuck-off. Albums such as 1983's Hand of Kindness, 1985's Across a Crowded Room, even 1991's magnificent Rumor and Sigh, all contain their share of bitter she-done-me-wrong songs, none more painful than "I Misunderstood" and "Waltzing's For Dreamers." By the time of 1996's double-disc you? me? us? it seemed as though the man had simply run out of ideas -- or merely run from them, wrapping dramatic riffs and reflective words inside icy technique. Thompson's among the greatest guitar players alive, plucking grief from between the strings, but there was a period there when you were so busy watching his fingers, you no longer paid attention to the rest of the body.
Thompson insists now that he doesn't know where fact and fiction begin and end in his own work. He finds it insulting that anyone would assume the man can't fabricate a lyric, that he's so dull and unimaginative he can only offer slices of his own life.
"I don't even know which songs are about real life and which ones are fiction," he says adamantly. "I don't know where the joint is, and I don't like to look for it, either. It's silly when others do. It's belittling to your imagination that people think you can only write about the routine of your own life. I think mostly I sit down to write stories, and mostly there are lots of me in there."
At the same time, the man says he could not have made Mock Tudor 10 or 15 years ago. He began the album -- produced this time around by Beck and Elliott Smith cohorts Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock -- only after he collected enough songs to make his conceptual album a reality. Mock Tudor, he explains, could not have been made by a young man. A young man doesn't have the perspective, he offers. And he's just too scared to look beyond his own reflection.
"As you get older, I think, it becomes more of a compulsion to be honest," Thompson says. "I think when you're younger, there's more bullshit in the way. You're more self-deluded about your life -- your hopes, your ambitions. When you get older, it becomes painfully clearer, and there are places to hide. You are more aware of when you are writing a lie, and there's a strong sense of duty: 'You must tell the truth.' That's the only way you will move the audience -- to tell the truth. And if you do it right, the audience will get it. If you're obfuscating, the audience will only be confused.
"And you're less fearful of being ridiculed. I play what I want regardless of what you say. You feel, 'Who cares?' I mean, if you're getting up on a stage and making a fool of yourself anyway, you might as well mean it. For me the best part of all of this -- writing, performing -- is still the communication. I get off on the communication. That means you have to perform the song and someone has to receive it, heart to heart."