Usually we just get to hear one side of a divorce in a book, a film, a record or whatever; we are left wondering about the unspoken rebuttal. The new solo albums by Richard and Linda Thompson give us that rare chance to examine a divorce from both sides of the courtroom. Rather than trying to score points, these two British folk-rockers have used their new records to sort out their feelings about their 1982 breakup.
It turns out that the view is not all that different from the male or female perspective. Neither side enjoys the clarity of a single dominating emotion; both are afflicted by a tangled thicket of anger, regret, relief, bitterness, loneliness, doubts and twisted memories. Both albums cover that entire emotional spectrum with songs that are personal in a universal rather than esoteric sense.
One expected as much from Richard's "Across a Crowded Room" (Polydor, 825 421-1 Y-1), for he has been one of pop music's top songwriters for 17 years. Linda's "One Clear Moment" (Warner Brothers, 9 25164-1) is more of a surprise, for she never before demonstrated the songwriting gifts she does now. Richard will be at the 9:30 club Tuesday.
Soon after Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention, the ground-breaking British folk-rock band he founded in 1967, he began singing with Linda Peters, who possessed a scintillating soprano reminiscent of Fairport's Sandy Denny. Richard and Linda were married in 1972 and released their first album as a duo in 1974, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight."
In 1982, they celebrated 10 years of marriage with their seventh and best album, "Shoot Out the Lights." Images of death and betrayal were tossed between Richard's ferocious guitar work and Linda's stunning vocals to create one of the very best records of the '80s. The American tour that followed was just as impressive, but during that tour the marriage and the partnership fell apart.
The pieces are scattered across the two new albums with the anger there for everyone to hear. "I close my eyes," Richard sings, "and then she takes another bite; she twists the knife again," and his guitar jerks like a knife plugged into a high voltage battery. "I hear your voice," Linda sings icily over a simmering synthesizer, "and it's still telling me lies." Richard describes a wedding ring as "a rattlesnake wrapped around your finger: one day it might wake up and sting you." Linda looks back on their early infatuation as two blind moths "in love with the flame."
Linda, though, acknowledges that eventually one has to give up the anger. When she sings, "No sleep until I let go," both her voice and the arrangement break into a stoic clarity. Richard captures the morning of waking up after all the anger has burned off to confront being alone after living as half of a couple. When he sings, "All the joy is gone from her face -- welcome back to the human race," his low-pitched guitar lumbers along at a sobered pace.
The most harrowing song on the two albums is Richard's lament of separation, "Ghosts in the Wind." Over the prickly guitar and droning bass of a nightmare, he describes her memory: "The tongues of the night wrack my bones -- oh, ghosts in the wind."
Both albums refuse the sentimental escape hatch of dreaming of a magical reconciliation; they bravely confront a relationship that is by all signs over. Nonetheless, they finally locate some hope for at least making peace. When Richard hears from a friend that Linda was asking about him, he responds, "Do you mean she still cares?" "We'll always be the best of friends," Linda sings hopefully, "although the thrill is gone. We both know true love never ends; it just goes on and on."
Richard leads a tough-edged rock quartet that includes two old colleagues from Fairport, guitarist Simon Nicol and drummer Dave Mattacks. Richard lunges after his anger and doubts with a savage intensity that's reflected in his drum-heavy arrangements, his dirty guitar and his aggressive singing.
Old Fairport producer Joe Boyd funnels Richard's passion into well-structured arrangements that make their points efficiently. The songwriter turns his anger on the devastation of the British economy in "Walking Through a Wasted Land" as effectively as he turns it on betrayed love in "When the Spell Is Broken."
Linda, who never did much songwriting before, worked closely with keyboardist Betsy Y. Cook, who acted as cowriter, arranger, musical director and harmony singer. Cook, a seasoned British session musician, hired ex-Fairport guitarists Jerry Donahue and Eric Clapton and guitarist Albert Lee to fill out her dominating keyboard arrangements. Cook's husband, Hugh Murphy, produced at their home studio.
What emerged from this process were gorgeous pop-rock tunes that are perfect for Linda's rich voice. The revealing lyrics and Linda's pointed vocals give the songs a distinctive character. Whether it's the calypso bounce of "Can't Stop the Girl," the synth-pop dance beat of "One Clear Moment" or the folkish ballad of "Telling Me Lies," the music forms an attractive frame for Linda's riveting vocals. She proves just how talented a singer she really is with a breathtaking version of Maurice Ravel's "Les Trois Beaux Oiseaux des Paradis."
Neither album mentions the ex-spouse by name anywhere in the lyrics or liner notes, yet each singer casts a shadow over the other's record. It's as if the two albums were a dialogue in which each actor had to write his or her lines before knowing what the other would say. Both records work because each songwriter is more interested in understanding his or her own feelings than in adopting an advantageous position.