Sunday Night Journal — January 21, 2007
Frankensteinian Science Goes Too Far

Music of the Week — January 21, 2007

Loudon Wainwright III: History

Here’s something different: an album for middle-aged middle-class men. Now there’s a population that’s, as they say, “underserved” by the popular music industry. Most middle-aged pop artists seem to see themselves as perpetual adolescents, or at any rate to write from that point of view. Even Dylan (who is really past even middle age now) still maintains a persona which has him scuffling for a living and chasing women like a restless and unknown young man, even though the days when he was anything other than a very wealthy celebrity are forty years and more in the past.

Wainwright makes no such pretences. He’s a middle-aged man writing about the things that most middle-aged men are concerned about: physical decline, regrets (a lot of regrets), his children, the death of his parents, his marriage (in his case, apparently broken). This is not, on the face of it, the kind of thing that generally appeals to me: it’s very mundane, a set of careful and very specific notes on his own everyday life (or at least what he presents as his own life). I tend to prefer the mythical, the mystical, the eccentric, the just plain weird. It’s easy for songs about mundane things to be merely mundane. But there’s not a dull moment here.

I complain frequently about musicians who play and sing very well but can’t write, or don’t care to write, fully-crafted songs. And I complain about songwriters who don’t really have anything to say. Here’s a man who confirms the importance of well-crafted and substantial songs. Much of this album is one man with a guitar, and where there’s a band it doesn’t get in the way of the songs at all. But I was pretty much spellbound for the entire forty-five minutes or so the first time I listened to it.

Part of the reason is that he doesn’t flinch at the difficult. He reminds me a bit of the confessional poets of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, middle-class neurotics who mixed their domesticity with heavy drinking and breakdowns and told it all in their poetry. Not that Wainwright is sensationalistic at all, or squishily intimate—just honest. I don’t suffer from exactly the same set of anxieties that he does (being, for one thing, happily married for many years), but there’s plenty here that any man, and maybe woman, of his age will connect with.

He also makes me think of the metaphysical poets, or rather of what Eliot said about their unified sensibility, their ability to integrate both wit and passion in one poem. Wry laughter, nostalgia, bitterness, affection, and grief are all mixed up in these songs, often within the same song. Offhand I can’t think of anybody working today who’s at quite his level of lyrical craft. As much as I’ve enjoyed Dylan’s last few albums, he’s not, today, remotely in Wainwright’s class as a songwriter. He makes most other contemporary songwriters seem sloppy and lazy; he’s either figured out, or knew instinctively, the truth of that famous admonition that poetry should be at least as well written as prose.

As a performer, Wainwright is exactly right for his material. He’s not a virtuoso, and not a spectacular singer, but he’s strong, relaxed, confident, and always in perfect command of the song. In short, this is a great album, and one which will probably be listened to long after more trendy and gimmicky music has been put aside.



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