For a singer/songwriter and guitarist long hailed as a great folk-rock romanticist, Richard Thompson actually prefers the company of misery. There are few truly happy endings in his extensive catalog. Like Elvis Costello, Thompson specializes in the mordant humor and plaintive spectacle of prolonged goodbyes, uneasy compromises and bedroom espionage. But Thompson’s special genius is in the way the slightly bassy warmth of his voice and his singular style of earthy pop classicism humanize all that hurt and mistrust, whether it’s the long bitter sigh of “When the Spell is Broken,” from 1985’s Across a Crowded Room, or the spicy blend of vitriol and release in Thompson’s Cajun hop “Tear Stained Letter,” from the 1983 album Hand of Kindness.
In anyone else’s hands, You? Me? Us? would be an epic bring-down. Even Thompson risks overplaying his hand by splitting this 19-track double CD into separate amplified (“Voltage Enhanced”) and acoustic (“Nude”) discs. The division of mood seems arbitrary in places. The chase-scene tempo of the unplugged romantic comedy “Train Don’t Leave” (“She’s mad and sore/She pokes at my nose with the old southpaw/Swings and misses, spins right round/Catch her in my arms and we fall to the ground”) practically begs for some madcap plugged-in guitar. Of the two versions of “Razor Dance,” the hot splatter of blood and tears on the electric take better suits the song’s deceptively exuberant chorus and sense of mounting crisis.
But there is both good sense and emotional resolution, however fragile, in Thompson’s programming, and his singing and playing — supported by a small top-drawer cast, including the great British stand-up bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), drummer Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello’s Attractions and an old Fairport Convention band mate of Thompson’s, guitarist Simon Nicol — are uniformly marvelous. The electric half of You? Me? Us? is a virtual broadside of complaint and vengeful bravado, sometimes funny, sometimes genuinely ugly. The heat of accusation and treason in “Put It There Pal” is intense almost to the point of discomfort; the way Thompson bends his strings in the guitar solo sounds like the breaking point of pure animal rage. Then again, there aren’t many songwriters who can get you to sing along with a stalker as Thompson does with dark brio and artgarage clang on “No’s Not a Word.”
The pain and recrimination carries over to the acoustic disc, but it is cut with reflective sympathy and poignant guilt framed by Thompson’s elegant finger-picking and Danny Thompson’s hearty bass counterpoint. In “Baby Don’t Know What to Do With Herself,” Thompson gently invokes the suicidal helplessness of a woman who wipes “her tears on a rusty nail.” And in the acoustic rendition of “Hide It Away,” Thompson strips back the jazzy flavor of the electric version and zeroes in on the stark isolation at the core of the song. When he hits the final high note in the line “I hold the ghost of you inside,” his voice sounds as big and deep as loneliness itself. It is a disturbing and wondrous moment — on an album full of them.