Song of the Week: I Misunderstood, Richard Thompson

71mffl2kntl-_sx355_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.

 

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Song of the Week: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Richard Thompson

Click to listen to “1952 Black Lightning,” by Richard Thompson

From the first verse of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. Between Richard Thompson’s sonorous brogue and his tight, evocative lyrics, he could probably sing me the ingredients on a container of orange juice and I’d be enthralled. His economy of expression is spectacular. Take the line “red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme,” which sketches in one of the character’s physical descriptions while simultaneously providing insight into the other character’s mindset: most people would say “you look pretty,” but the motorcycle fanatic frames it in his own terms.

The song’s plot is out of a hackneyed romance, but with a uniquely British spin. The song is, in Thompson’s own words, “a simple boy meets girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a certain motorcycle”—the British-made Vincent Black Lightning, which was the fastest production motorcycle in the world in the late 40s. And that, I think, is what makes the song so powerful. Boy meets girl is a time-honored theme, but this song is really a love triangle: it’s boy/girl/motorcycle. By using the Black Lightning, Thompson situates a common theme in an unfamiliar setting, at least for most American listeners, who immediately think Beatles and Rolling Stones when they think about post-war Britain.

Oh, and the guitar playing. The guitar playing! Thompson is a master finger-picker, especially evident in the song’s introduction and the solo break at 1:57. I’m not actually sure how he’s able to fit so many notes in. The phrasing and note choice is vaguely Celtic, reinforcing the tune’s British character. The song’s time is ragged, speeding up and slowing down incrementally, what some musicians would regard as a sloppy mistake but in this instance gives the song a rough, straight-from-the-heart quality to it.

There’s so much more to write about this song, but you should just go listen to it.