Scroll Down to Listen to “I Misunderstood” (Opens in Spotify)
Breakups are what keep songwriters in business. It’s a universal theme that can be mined for pathos, empathy, and sometimes dark humor. But most musical breakups are stereotypical, abstracted events—it’s hard to imagine them happening to real people. Of course, a certain amount of generality permits a variety of different listeners to see themselves in a song, but many breakup songs are so vague as to squash any emotional resonance whatsoever.
Part of the problem may be that songwriters are reluctant to place themselves too squarely under the microscope. Richard Thompson, luckily, is not. “I Misunderstood” is a breakup song about real people, who send mixed messages and change their minds. It carries the uncomfortable weight of real experience, and sounds like a human being wrote it, rather than an anodyne hit machine.
For me, the emotional crux comes at the end of the first verse into the first chorus:
“She was laughing as she brushed my cheek/ ‘why don’t you call me, angel, maybe next week/Promise now cross your heart and hope to die//But I misunderstood/I thought she was saying good luck/she was saying goodbye.” As Thompson repeats the refrain, you can feel the protagonist reeling from the shock of this new revelation.
Writing good material is only half the battle—you have to be able to interpret it well too. Thompson’s rich voice carries shock and a rueful smile, and his guitar playing is unusually understated but always harmonically interesting, from the main hook (a play on the so-called “Asian riff”) to the thumping, dark chord progression. Would that every breakup song was this good—but not every breakup.