Anyone still hoping for one essential, comprehensive Richard Thompson anthology is probably missing the point of Thompson's career. The British guitar legend has written and recorded some of the best songs of the rock era—deep, multi-faceted confessionals that draw on the storytelling tradition of ancient folklore—but like a top-flight jazz man, he gives his work a different spin each time he picks up his instrument. The version of "Shoot Out The Lights" on the album of the same name is plenty great, but it's hard to argue that it's any more essential than the countless live takes floating around on the grey market.
On the five-CD box set RT: The Life And Music Of Richard Thompson, "Shoot Out The Lights" is especially fine, with Thompson strangling his guitar for several tense minutes before returning to the descending power chords that reverberate throughout the song like a death knell. Equally strong: fragile acoustic takes on the Thompson classics "Withered And Died" and "Beat The Retreat," and room-filling versions of the near-mythic "Gethsemane" and "Sloth." Thompson's songs don't tend to be overly complex, but onstage, he improvises around their basic themes, finding new interpretations that express his mood.
RT contains none of Thompson's "official" studio recordings, and the live versions and demos collected here suffer some from murky sound and/or general negligibility. But while six-plus hours of Thompson marginalia may be more than even fans will want to slog through, the box has been conveniently organized—with, for example, one whole disc devoted to covers, and one to "epic live workouts"—and it's dotted with amusing one-offs like "Madonna's Wedding" and "Dear Janet Jackson," where Thompson entertains the crowd with spur-of-the-moment pop lampoons. These are moments that might've been lost, now collected and contextualized as part of the whole Richard Thompson experience.