I was combing through the Green Man archives for songs on a Halloween theme when I thought of several of them on this Richard Thomson album. In a decades-long discography of albums full of dark songs, 1996’s You? Me? Us? stands out as Richard Thompson’s most macabre (right down to the creepy cut-and-paste artwork). I couldn’t find a review anywhere, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t written this one up. Then I realized that it came out a couple of years before I started writing for GMR. It was the first studio album he released after I joined RT-List, the online Thompson email list. It was and remains an enigmatic album, even for RT.
It’s a double CD with a total of 74 minutes of music. The first disc, “Voltage Enhanced,” is more on the rock side of Thompson’s “folk rock” sound. He’s accompanied by full band and his guitar playing is mostly or entirely electric. The second, “Nude,” is quieter, with Thompson playing mostly acoustic guitar, sometimes solo and sometimes accompanied by bassist Danny Thompson or a violin or cello. Two songs, “Hide It Away,” and “Razor Dance,” appear in different arrangements on both discs. The songs are a bit uneven in quality, but among them are some of his best that are favorites among long-time fans.
You? Me? Us? was the last in a long line of Thompson albums produced by Mitchell Froom (often with Tchad Blake engineering or co-producing). Froom was controversial among the long-time fans and amateur critics of the online community, for his tendencies toward a wall-of-sound approach and the use of studio effects that some felt distracted from RT’s acerbic lyrics and stunning guitar playing. With hindsight, much of the production and engineering effects serve this particular batch of songs quite well.
“I got sinister things waiting for you in my rattle bag
Egyptian rings, the dust of kings, and the tooth of a hag
Bones of Keats, tongues of cheats, and a mad dog’s eye
I’m gonna make you love me and you won’t know why.
That’s the opening verse from “Business On You,” one of my favorites. Its narrator is just one of several creepy guys whom every woman would be well advised to run away from as fast as possible. There’s the bitter dude who won’t let the memory of a failed love die in “Dark Hand Over My Heart.” The control freak in “No’s Not A Word” who leads off with “I’m going to pretend you like me too / All of my messages come from you …” before launching into the repetitive chorus of “No’s not a word we use around here.” The confused sad sack of “Am I Wasting My Love On You?” who is a bit reminiscent of the character in The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” except this guy’s love interest runs off and barricades her bedroom door. The soldier who steal’s a dead infantryman’s picture of his girlfriend, then goes home and marries her, in “Woods of Darney.” And best of all is the guy going through his girlfriend’s stuff when she steps out for a few minutes, trying to find pictures she’s kept of her former boyfriends and see how he stacks up, in the chilling “Cold Kisses.” This one often makes appearances in Thompson’s live set lists, and always gets a similar response: laughs turning into nervous titters turning into appalled silence.
To wrap up the Halloween theme, first there’s the acoustic ballad “Sam Jones” about a bone collector – human, animal, doesn’t matter to Sam. “And if you’re unburied / the likes of me will find you / You’re no good to worms, but you might become the finest glue / We’ll grind you up and spread you / out as fertilizer, too …” At the other end of the spectrum is the tender love ballad that ends the electric disc, even though it’s a solo acoustic song about two people reluctantly giving up on love, “The Ghost Of You Walks.” “The ghost of you walks right through my head / sleepwalks at the foot of my bed / sends old shivers over my skin …” A situation many of us can identify with.
“Razor Dance,” which opens the first disc, is a durable rocker whether electric or acoustic, and was often used as opener in live shows. Thematically it’s a typically cynical look at love but it’s full of lyrical and instrumental hooks. Nestled in the middle of the first disc is one of Thompson’s most durable concert staples, a rocker on the order of “Shoot Out The Lights.” I was at a Richard Thompson Band concert one time in the late ’90s when they played “Put It There Pal” with such ferocity I was surprised anybody in the front row survived it. And likewise, about midway through the acoustic disc is one of Thompson’s best ballads, for my money. “Burns Supper” is a sad, stark portrait of a man getting along in years who still resists love out of fear of intimacy, with nods to RT’s Scottish heritage and the poetry of Robert Burns.
There’s a certain amount of filler that I haven’t mentioned, although I’m sure some of those songs are among some fans’ sentimental favorites. In the end, Y?M?U? is almost a whole double album full of deep cuts. There’s no “Vincent” or “Beeswing” or “Wall Of Death” or “Walking On A Wire,” to be sure, but several of these songs make lasting impressions and belong on any quality Richard Thompson playlist.