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In concert, Richard Thompson used to introduce “Don’t Let a Thief Steal Into Your Heart” as “our Pointer Sisters number.” Then he’d laugh, nervously.

The joke was that “Thief” was the only song in Thompson’s bag of tunes that shook even a little booty. Because Richard Thompson didn’t do funk. Didn’t do R&B. Hell, one of the hottest guitarists and bandleaders on either side of the Atlantic didn’t even rock and roll. That’s right—check your old LPs (there are now almost 25 years’ worth). Sure, you’ll find some righteous lightning-struck Highland jigs, plenty of Stratocaster-toasted Scottish reels, and some heartbreakingly lovely English ballads. (Even some stuff that wouldn’t be out of place on an Everly Brothers record.) But rock ’n’ roll? Thompson has generally declined.

Until now. Mouths agape, longtime Thompson fans are discovering that the new double CD package, you? me? us? (one disc “voltage enhanced,” the other “nude”—winking ’90s parlance for “electric” and “acoustic”)—is full of funky stuff. The “voltage enhanced” disc opens with a blast of college-radio-friendly post-grunge; the next song steals the bass riff from Stevie Winwood’s old raver “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The opening number on the “nude” side is actually a sort of genteel gutbucket blues. No doubt about it, on this record Thompson commits himself to rock (in the broadest sense of the term) as never before.

So it’s no pleasure to report that you? me? us? is a pretty bad record, one of the least convincing Thompson disks in recent years. Thompson’s strong, idiosyncratic sensibility sits uncomfortably with both these songs and this band, surprising since the lineup, featuring both L.A. session musicians like drummer Jim Keltner and such long-time Thompson associates as rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, is basically the same band that played on Thompson’s quite successful 1994 release, Mirror Blue. But on you? me? us?, Thompson’s vocals, usually the raw, tearing vehicle for his sharp-tongued takes on modern men, women, and their screwed-up relationships, are weak and unfocused. He’s often left chasing clumsily after the beat like a man after a disappearing bus. It’s no longer true that “Richard Thompson doesn’t do rock ’n’ roll.” It now seems fair to say that he can’t.

Yet it’s possible to see the new record, so uncharacteristic of Thompson’s work as a whole, less as a botch than as a key to the meaning of a fascinating career. I’d put Thompson alongside such much better known artists as Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and even Lennon and McCartney as a master of the modern popular song. So if Thompson can’t swing like his songwriting peers, perhaps that’s more a distinguishing quality than a simple failure. Twenty-five years ago, when everybody from Jagger and Richards to Lou Reed was looking for his “roots” in black rhythm and blues, Thompson was heading off into the briary thickets of Celtic and English folk music—down a path that has led him far from the popular music mainstream.

From the beginning—to use the title of 1993’s 3-CD Rykodisc retrospective—Thompson liked “watching the dark.” He first turned to serious songwriting after leaving Fairport Convention, the folksy, back-to-the-country-life British band for whom he’d played guitar in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Thereafter, he set up a partnership with soon-to-be-wife Linda, in which Richard wrote the songs and the two split the singing duties. No doubt Fairport fans were expecting more of the same from the duo, and the music on the Thompsons’ first two releases, Hokey Pokey and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight—both from 1974—is, it’s true, folk-based. But beyond that, these striking records are basically a thumb in the eye to old Fairport fans.

The songs are built on gutter-folk of an especially raw and unsentimental sort: rough Northern ballads and gin palace jigs telling the stories of runaways, terminal drunks, beggar girls, and unrepentant thieves of purse and heart. “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” for example, is a vision of human vanity drowning in alcohol, and “When I Get to the Border” is a cynical view of the irresponsibility and sour hatred for his neighbors that drives a man to pull up stakes and head for a foreign land.

Then there’s the “Little Beggar Girl,” her innocence ruined by poverty, and the depraved backroom goings-on at “The Egypt Room.” Even Hokey Pokey’s title track, subtitled “The Ice Cream Song,” turns out to be about sex, not ice cream.

In short, the music is keening and raucous (and shows Thompson a growing master on guitar, mandolin, and hurdy-gurdy), and the lyrics, though tempered by Thompson’s devilish humor, are pitch black. Indeed, the songs stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the mid-’70s musical landscape that their real subject fairly leaps out: in a word, fate. What draws Thompson to this music is its dark, changeless characters. Whether drunks, beggar girls, or the scheming rich, nobody’s life ever develops in these songs. They just get what they deserve. Thompson’s work stands directly opposed to both the good-old-days utopianism of his old granola-munching Fairport fans, and the forward-looking dynamism of mainstream rock ’n’ rollers. (God knows the early ’70s Thompson stands as a stiff rebuke to drug-addled dreamers from Hendrix to the Grateful Dead to basically the whole ’60s-’70s pop musical scene.) There’s something in Thompson that relishes stripping life of all illusion, and that cherishes the guttersnipes of his songs for having the plain, sooty features of disappointing reality.

And yet this early work doesn’t entirely satisfy. With the exception of a few keepers—the achingly poignant “A Heart Needs a Home” or the stunning “The Great Valerio,” in which a teetering tightrope walker is the image for the lovers’ always precarious attempt to keep faith in each another—one admires more than loves these rigorous songs. And one finally wonders exactly what they have to do with one’s own life—or Richard Thompson’s.

The answer comes on 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, when the collapse of his marriage finally pushes Thompson to write directly from his own life. Shoot is an extraordinary record, notable for Thompson’s ability to catch the painfully disorienting emotions of a failing marriage as he is living one and for the thoughtfulness he brings to recording not just his own take on the crisis but Linda’s as well, since, as always, he composes songs for both his voice and for hers. It is one of the unquestionably great releases of the last 20 years, and the record on which Thompson forges a blazing union of his growing mastery of the old folk forms, his own brilliant musicality (both instrumental and compositional), and an impressive deepening of his artistic vision.

Shoot’s most lasting significance for Thompson’s career is that by writing about his own considerable responsibility for the smash-up of his marriage, Thompson finally grabs the insight that inspires his work to this day, that fate isn’t a question of fixed characters—drunkards and footloose rovers—but rather of fixed character, of the fatal stubbornness of one’s own heart and psyche. In “A Man in Need,” which Thompson has taken as a sort of theme song, he first describes the figure who has inhabited his songs for the past 15 years, the man who is divided against himself, the man impelled to destroy every human connection he cares about, for reasons he can’t control and may never understand.

It’s a vision that Thompson has explored relentlessly in his subsequent solo work, turning up a fascinating variety of male misery and misery-making. There are songs of the death of love (“When the Spell Is Broken,” from 1985’s Across a Crowded Room), longing remembrances of lost love (every album seems to have a couple, including the new record’s “The Ghost of You Walks”), ignoble retreats homeward by penitent “men in need”(“Beat the Retreat”), and rants by outright sociopaths (“Feel So Good”). And at the bloody crux of the whole sequence, those that directly confront the deep-split masculine heart. Besides “Man in Need,” there is “Mascara Tears,” from Mirror Blue (“Don’t take it too hard/There’s another man inside me wants to break us apart”), and from the new record, perhaps the most chilling of all: “Sometimes I wonder why/I love and let it die,” sings Thompson, answering himself with the song’s title: “There’s a dark hand over my heart.”

Such unflinching stares into the emotional abyss are no doubt why you? me? us? features the return of producer Mitchell Froom, who produced Mirror Blue and 1988’s Amnesia, and whose charge seems to be to draw Thompson (as James Wolcott recently wrote of David Letterman) as far as possible back into the family of man. Thompson purists tend to loathe Froom (I once heard a Tower Records clerk tell a customer in contemptuous tones that Froom had “taken the bones out” of Thompson’s music), but he’s had some successes. On Mirror Blue, he deftly balanced Thompson’s affection for spareness and intensity with listeners’ pleasure, incorporating a wider range of color, some lightness of tone, and even occasional touches of humor. (Thompson’s music, by the way, has never fully recovered from the loss of Linda Thompson’s lovely, intelligent, deep-souled voice.)

After Mirror Blue, the new disk’s shift to a more radio-friendly rock/R&B-based sound must have seemed a logical step. (The record’s electric/ acoustic split further suggests a Claptonesque career move.) But “Razor Dance,” the first “voltage-enhanced” track, fast dispels the notion that rock ’n’ roll is going to be a short-cut back to the mainstream. It’s a brief primer in how rock works—and doesn’t. Musically, it has the dynamics familiar from any Rolling Stones single: first, a couple of verses that manage to sound both ardent and yet restrained and then the chorus—an explosive, esctatic release. (They don’t call it rock ’n’ roll for nothing.) Thompson, to his credit, tries to make his song, about a marriage’s disintegration into a cockpit of recriminations, fit that strategy. “Razor Dance” is an accelerating tango of bad faith that, appropriately, culminates at the chorus: “I want to break out of this spin/But gravity’s pulling me in,” cries the singer. Well…it works on paper. But as the music surges up and out, the spirit of the lyric is heading the opposite direction. There’s just nothing very exhilarating about a marriage spiraling into hell. The bottom line is: What’s a writer as gifted as Richard Thompson doing trying to match his rich, tragic vision to a music best suited to expressing the straightforward desires of teenagers? It’s been a long time since Thompson was, or wanted to be, that simple.

Then there are the challenges of singing a new kind of song. Numbers with a slippery beat, like the softly-swinging “Hide It Away,” or the opening blues on the acoustic disk, “Baby Don’t Know What to Do With Herself,” reveal Thompson’s lack of seasoning as a rhythm- and-blues vocalist. With his more acccustomed ballads and dance hall stomps, Thompson knows exactly how to get out ahead of the beat and lead the song. But R&B is different. The rhythm section establishes the beat and the swing, and the singer is as much a responsive vocal “dancer” as a tale-teller. To put it kindly, Thompson needs to be shown some steps.

Finally, though, it’s on one of you? me? us?’s few successful numbers that Thompson gives away the game completely. “Put It There, Pal” is a crunching, four-square Celtic rocker (it wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-’70s Richard and Linda Thompson LP), and Thompson sounds palpably relieved to be back on familiar musical ground. It’s the lyric that’s so telling, a string of savage put-downs of a back-slapping hypocrite who is “so full of love [he] leaks like a sieve”—and who is clearly an archetypal American, as the Yank slang deployed throughout slyly indicates. The unstanched distaste Thompson here displays for easy American emotion isn’t surprising in an Englishman. But it’s terribly revealing—since that’s pretty much rock ’n’ roll all over. Like it or not, neon-lit, open-hearted American dynamism is the engine that drives the beast. In the end, that’s why you? me? us? fails to deliver. Thompson just doesn’t have the heart for it.

Which isn’t criticism of Thompson the artist. There are plenty of well-adjusted blondes with big hair who can keep the rock arena owners off the streets. But only Richard Thompson can make you want to sit down and cry in one song, and doubt your sanity in the next. Next time around, I’d say: Let Richard be Richard.CP