Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Loudon Wainwright III

  • Loudon Wainwright III [Atlantic, 1970] B-
  • Album II [Atlantic, 1971] B+
  • Album III [Columbia, 1972] A-
  • Attempted Mustache [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Unrequited [Columbia, 1975] A-
  • T Shirt [Arista, 1976] B+
  • Final Exam [Arista, 1978] B+
  • A Live One [Rounder, 1980] B+
  • Fame and Wealth [Rounder, 1983] B
  • I'm Alright [Rounder, 1985] B+
  • More Love Songs [Rounder, 1987] B+
  • Therapy [Silvertone, 1989] B+
  • History [Charisma, 1992] *
  • Career Moves [Virgin, 1993] A
  • Grown Man [Virgin, 1996] A-
  • Little Ship [Charisma, 1998] ***
  • Social Studies [Hannibal, 1999] *
  • Last Man on Earth [Red House, 2001] ***
  • So Damn Happy [Sanctuary, 2003] B+
  • Here Come the Choppers! [Sovereign Artists, 2005] A-
  • Strange Weirdos [Concord, 2007] B+
  • Recovery [Yep Roc, 2008] *
  • High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project [161, 2009] A
  • 40 Odd Years [Shout! Factory, 2011]  
  • Older Than My Old Man [2nd Story Sound, 2012] A
  • Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) [429, 2014] A-
  • Lifetime Achievement [Storysound, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Loudon Wainwright III [Atlantic, 1970]
Wainwright writes with more precision and imagination than any other singer-songwriter of the current boom, and his melodies stick with you. He sings and plays with such authority that even though this record features only voice and acoustic guitar it's powerful musically. But. The failures of the talented are always painful, and this is very strained. He's smart enough to integrate syntactical contortions into his style, and to match them vocally, but they still make you wince sometimes. And there's no emotional maturity to go with the verbal control, no sense of kindness or ease. I enjoy this record quite a bit, but I admire it more, and sometimes I don't like it at all. B-

Album II [Atlantic, 1971]
In which Wainwright untwists the dense associations--usually too literal and/or analytic to qualify as metaphor--that made his first album so hard to take, though for those who'd like to sample the mode "Be Careful, There's a Baby in the House" is as good as it gets. He may make you laugh, but he's not trying to be funny--this is bitter stuff whether he's trying to persuade a groupie to save his life or to explain that an old friendship has gone from backslap to handshake. B+

Album III [Columbia, 1972]
In which the whiz kid relaxes with a pleasant folk-rock band and admits that the chief use of epigrammatic wit is humor, thereby consenting to be funny right out. He also allows himself a few moments of genuine lyricism, sees fit to steal a song from Leiber & Stoller, and also appropriates a melody from "Sweet Little Sixteen." His reward? "Dead Skunk," a song redolent of the pop success he seeks. The misanthrope grows older. Very encouraging. A-

Attempted Mustache [Columbia, 1973]
First he was a failed poet. Now he's a successful comedian. Maybe someday soon he'll put it all together and become a successful poet, but this will do--the fact that "Dilated to Meet You" and "Lullaby" and for that matter "The Swimming Song" are funny doesn't mean they don't add to the great store of human wisdom. And as I recall, Chuck Berry made do with something similar for quite a while. A-

Unrequited [Columbia, 1975]
Since most people can't absorb the head-on impact of Wainwright's conjugal details--how do you confront an accusation like "You told me that I came too soon but it was you who came too late"?--the second side of this album, recorded live, tends to sound a little yockier than it should. On side one, however, the mockery has just the right edge of self-flagellation and is balanced off by a gentleness without which he might seem a little spoiled. In other words, the balance of pleasure and pain he's been seeking for five years. A-

T Shirt [Arista, 1976]
Loudon seems to be approaching sanity as he approaches thirty, and while that bodes well for his career it won't help his (you'll pardon the expression) his art much. He needs one song as astonishing as "Rufus Is a Tit Man" every time out. B+

Final Exam [Arista, 1978]
The renewed bite here seems more a sign that producer John Lissauer has a knack for the exquisite programmatic effect--check out the Roches' demure buffoonery on "Golfin' Blues" or the way the band calls Loudon "Mr. Guilty"--than that Wainwright is once again willing to apply his scalpel to himself. It was always brave, painful jokes like "Motel Blues" and "Kick in the Head" that gave the rest of his funny stuff its strength, and their absence from his two most recent albums may be why even his best new songs sound like one-liners rather than comic classics. Lotsa great one-liners, though. B+

A Live One [Rounder, 1980]
The cheap seats are the only seats at a Wainwright show, and too often he plays to them, but here the screwy faces and strangled diction and spastic phrasing and easy jokes are kept in check. It's not as if his albums are so ornately orchestrated that the man-and-his-guitar format is a breath of fresh air. But he's a singer-songwriter who deserves a best-of, and this will do till he gets it. B+

Fame and Wealth [Rounder, 1983]
Loudon's most confident album since he split with CBS in 1975 is also his least ambitious, done folkie-style with two penetrating embellishments from Richard Thompson and two band cuts. For a while he walks his old tightrope, wild and nasty enough to make his chronic egoism seem of general interest. But the jokes and feelings are getting thinner, and soon you'll find yourself wishing he'd grow up, shut up, or both. B

I'm Alright [Rounder, 1985]
Last time he was complacent in defeat, his irony all sarcasm and his permanent postadolescence an annoying bore. This time he's facing up--not to anything existential or absurd, that stuff comes too easy, but to what it might mean to make an alright career (and life) out of "unhappy love." The result is discernibly superior to the perfectly enjoyable one-liner miscellanies of the late '70s and not quite there even so. Just rooting for the Rangers and having his doubts about bell-bottom pants once made him a (very minor) prophet; now they make him normal. My suggestion: a concept album about having kids. B+

More Love Songs [Rounder, 1987]
With regret and trepidation, I'd venture that divorce has been good for his songwriting--after almost a decade of hit-and-miss, this is his second straight to lay down an attitude. The two tracks that tackle the split head-on aren't clever enough for Nashville, which with this clever bastard is a plus. On the other hand, the wit of "Man's World" is subsumed by its antifeminist rancor, so that after "Unhappy Anniversary" side two rides on attitude alone. B+

Therapy [Silvertone, 1989]
He makes fun of it, and why not, but it's been good for him--the only time he revels in what a mean bastard he is you'd think he was describing somebody else. Not only has shrinkage sharpened his instinct for love's twists, it's gotten him musing about his great subject, parenthood. In "Thanksgiving" he rankles and dreams, in "Me and All the Other Mothers" he braves the playground, and in "My Father's Car" he's insecure about his dad, his mom, his kids, an ex-wife, and the state inside of 2:21. B+

History [Charisma, 1992]
at its best, why he needs the men's movement; at its worst, why you don't ("Talking New Bob Dylan," "Hitting You") *

Career Moves [Virgin, 1993]
Wainwright has aged no better than most likable bad boys, maybe worse. His promising-to-excellent young songs turned gamy in the '80s--how many rueful immaturity jokes can one over-30 sing?--and though some claim he grew up with History, its Iron John sensitivity was a cover for the same old self-involvement. But by sampling the highs of his over-30 output while eliding its numerous flubs, this constitutes a summing up. Framed by two unembittered accounts of how he makes his living and dotted with illustrative patter, it has its heart-tuggers ("Your Mother and I," written to explain the inevitable breakup to his and Suzzy Roche's daughter), but mostly it presents him as what he is--a talented wag who came in his cummerbund, dropped clown acid, and never became a star. It should cheer any over-30 bad boy who can forget that his spotty sex life and pathetic adventures in substance abuse will never be as entertaining as this born entertainer's. It may also convince the bad boy's squeeze that things could be worse. A

Grown Man [Virgin, 1996]
In a music where scions of the upper-middle class are supposed to camouflage their cultural impoverishment, one of the many irritating things about L-III is that he's never bothered. Another is his great subject, which boils down to divorce whether the metaphor is his kids or his mom or his waitress. Here, however, the metaphor surpasses itself on at least four songs--about a jerk doing the women's-lib hustle after the porch door has closed, a philandering father and his faithless son, who then becomes a father who meets his daughter on her first birthday, and an older daughter who gets the last word because her father scripts it for her. "That Hospital," which is about life and death, is where his belated maturity comes from. Don't bet it lasts. A-

Little Ship [Charisma, 1998]
jape, jape against the dying of the light ("Four Mirrors," "So Damn Happy") ***

Social Studies [Hannibal, 1999]
commentary not protest, and usually worse for it ("Tonya's Twirls," "Pretty Good Day") *

Last Man on Earth [Red House, 2001]
his mother died and he's gonna ("White Winos," "Bed") ***

So Damn Happy [Sanctuary, 2003]
His 1993 Career Moves did the live folkie best-of as right as it's ever been done. A decade on he's more half-assed--men's-lib lite from History, redundant third "Westchester County," nothing off 2001's Last Man on Earth because his label changed (again). But with a couple of exceptions the songs were strong to start and improve in context, and there are five (out of 17) new ones--every one a winner, three played for laughs if you count "Something for Nothing," which is about file-sharing. Know what? The old fart's against it, although he's too sarcastic to come out and say so straight. Know what else? He may convince you. This is a man who's been making mincemeat out of hippie muscleheads since Timothy Leary was a visionary. B+

Here Come the Choppers! [Sovereign Artists, 2005]
For a decade Wainwright has been keeping it real with songs about family trauma and songs about what a shit he is--themes sometimes addressed simultaneously, as in "Year," where he first meets his latest daughter on her first birthday. Once his political songs fell flat because he wasn't scared or angry enough. Now when he's a shit you wonder why you should care--which is kind of hip-hop, don't you think?--but Bush has him so scared and angry he makes up for it, with a dedicated posse of El Lay studio vets getting in their licks. "No Sure Way" mourns the WTC, "God's Country" renounces Nashville, and "Choppers" imagines a bombed Los Angeles devastated as logically and surreally as a bombed Baghdad. And "Choppers" is no more disturbing than "My Biggest Fan," which could inspire any singer-songwriter to do an emotional cost-benefit analysis on the touring life--and leave a 400-pound aficionado feeling flattered anyway. A-

Strange Weirdos [Concord, 2007]
The "soundtrack" to the gloriously funny Knocked Up slips in two Joe Henry instrumentals and a remake of Wainwright's 1973 "Lullaby" that's more passionate than the love song he goes out on, which is called "Passion Play." But parenthood has always been one of his great themes, L.A. life is turning into another, and as for love, give him this: He has long shown a knack for pretending that he's getting the idea. B+

Recovery [Yep Roc, 2008]
62-year-old applies a lifetime of singing lessons and emotional travail to the coruscations of his youth ("Muse Blues," "Old Friend"). *

High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project [161, 2009]
Young folkies are attracted to their chosen past because it seems so raw. But though young folkie Wainwright twigged to this totemic mountaineer via the line "The beefsteak it was rare and the butter had red hair," now he's old enough to cook him. Poole didn't write that line or anything else he sang--he'd perform Paul Dresser's musty "The Letter That Never Came" as soon as W.C. Handy's hightailing "Ramblin' Blues" if he thought it was good for a drink. And in Wainwright's plentifully illustrated and annotated two-CD tribute, where nine of the 29 selections are new songs by Wainwright and/or producer Dick Connette, Poole stands as a touchstone of a bygone era. Wainwright is such a card that you don't think of him as a singer, but he puts more throat and thorax into the sentimental ballads than Poole had in him, and his barn burners are louder and faster without approaching Poole's rooted assurance or reckless abandon. These conscious misprisions are fine by me. In fact, I'm more likely to play the canny reconstruction than the certified original. I'm older than Poole ever was. A

40 Odd Years [Shout! Factory, 2011]
Loudon Wainwright III is a quintessentially minor artist. An upper-middle-class WASP who came up in the folk scene without ever pretending he wanted to be one of the folk, he's the son of a famous journalist who studied acting in college and has the meager intuitive musicality that background would imply (although it's deepened with the years along with his voice, which needed it). In addition, Wainwright is kind of a dick. His dozens upon dozens of intelligent songs about his emotional life never convey the deep decency of his contemporary John Prine or his first wife Kate McGarrigle. He's too jocose, too snide, too repressed.

Minor is a lousy look for somebody hoping to sell a four-CD box plus bonus DVD that will set you back 50 bucks. Who does he think he is--Yes? Yet one odd thing about 40 Odd Years is that the title speaks for itself. Wainwright may not have Prine's heart or McGarrigle's tonsils, but compared to either he's been amazingly persistent and prolific. In 1993 he put out a live best-of called Career Moves. Complain that 11 of those songs are repeated here if you like. I'll note that eight are not, and that any of them would fit right in if it was--he's got a whole lot of material. Career Moves came out 18 years ago, which means that all of the third disc here was recorded later, just as all of the "Rare & Unreleased" fourth was essentially unavailable until the box appeared. Moreover, and extraordinary for these extravaganzas, the fourth disc is not crap--not close. Most of the songs are new to us and many are superb, including the pathetic "Laid" (hers are saggy, his is small), the elegiac "Hank and Fred" (Williams and Rogers as co-equals), the post-9/11 "No Sure Way" (among the victims, a subway stop), and the horseman-pass-by "Dead Man," which mourns his dead father and his soon-dead self with equal dispassion.

What makes Wainwright a good box candidate is that so many of his 24 albums on 14 labels are uneven enough to repay cherry-picking. What makes him a bad one is that quite a few of them are worth hearing on their own--Grown Man, say. Not all of these songs will make you say umm the moment it comes on. But the first half of the first disc is astonishing proof of how much pizzazz he had just joking around, with even less heart and tonsils than he's grown since. And later in the set, many of the songs you don't first recognize grow on you fast and sometimes big. "Hollywood Hopeful" is a hoot, "So Many Songs" anything but, "When I'm at Your House" in between.

Then there's that DVD. It's over three hours, way too long for one sitting and just plain way too long. Beginning with a one-hour Dutch documentary from the '90s and augmented throughout by interviews and patter, it's mostly performance clips that date all the way back to the '70s--some of which offer up keepers the CDs missed, my personal favorite being his best political song, which in a typical twist concerns figure-skating lowlife Tonya Harding. Tour-based as it has to be, this exhaustive and exhausting audiovisual record leaves a powerful overall impression of an odd man out who has spent 40 years alone on the road. It helps you admire his persistence and understand why he's a dick. It strongly suggests that his difficulties with human relationships led to the life he chose rather than vice versa.

The thing is, his difficulties with human relationships have combined with his obsessive craft to produce an unparalleled bunch of songs about family life. "Your Mother and I," "Your Father's Car," his indelible version of Peter Blegvad's "Daughter"--even if your family history is less neurotic than Wainwright's, as it probably is, you can recognize its dynamics in the man's endless self-examination, bitter analysis, and joking around. Some of the more generalized laughs get old eventually--it'll be a while before I need to hear "The Acid Song" again. But "Bein' a Dad" I could play right now.

Whether this experience is worth your 50 bucks is for you to figure out. But I'll tell you one thing. Wainwright didn't have the guts or good sense to include his greatest and most painful family song of all: Grown Man's "That Hospital." Try to check it out. Might clarify your decision, might not.  

Older Than My Old Man [2nd Story Sound, 2012]
A reluctant 50, he started playing the Old card with the adulthood album Grown Man; now, a saggy stripling of 65, he trumps himself with a mortality album. Wainwright has been writing death songs for years, of course, but on his eighth album and label of the young century the theme turns concept. In one song he's a ghost; another features a reflection his late father wrote about his own late father; the one that begins "Somebody else I knew just died" is followed by the one called "The Days That We Die." Family members abound, including the late Kate McGarrigle in a remake of her sole co-write with her husband, from before either was 30, which happens to be called "Over the Hill." There are cameos from Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Chris Smither, John Scofield, the winsome Dame Edna Everage; Tom Lehrer declined but loved how Wainwright fit the word "Mercurochrome" into "My Meds." With Elliott, Loud-O bids for a do-over: "You don't know what you're doin' and you can't just wait;/You go ahead and do it and then it's too late/You need a double lifetime." After he goes down on his knees and prays, as he promises he will, this album will be Exhibit A on his application. A

Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) [429, 2014]
Waggish Wainwright ordinaire, all but a few of the 14 tracks equipped with laugh lines that vary considerably in depth, acuity, and, come to that, humor. The parking song is a deft trifle, the dog-walking song a sharp cut; the NRA satire is heavy-handed, the Harlan County lament multidimensional; the one where his estranged lover dies of guilt is uglier than it knows, the one where they can't find the right date to split kinder than it pretends. My favorite is a birthday song for a kid I figure is young Lexie. It's tender, not funny at all. A-

Lifetime Achievement [Storysound, 2022]
Just two years ago this direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant released the fully orchestrated standards album I'd Rather Lead a Band, and two years before that the half-spoken soundtrack to the Netflix special Surviving Twin, his acerbic, fondly admiring one-man show about Life magazine eminence Loudon Wainwright Jr. Since the idea on what I calculate to be his 30th album is to brag about reaching his 75th birthday, it is my sad duty to report that he did a better job on 2012's Older Than My Old Man Now, where he bragged about reaching his 65th birthday. But much more than on Surviving Twin, the most memorable stroke of which is a preposterously civilized reading of his dad's snobbish notes on the London tailor who fashioned his best suit, or I'd Rather Lead a Band, which broadens his perceived frame of reference rather than staking any meaningful claim on "Ain't Misbehavin'" much less adding his own "How I Love You" to the pop canon, this album is the 18th unmitigated keeper in what is by now a vast catalogue of bottomless facility and immense frame of reference. The most annoying track bewails a family vacation under the anxiety-prone title "Fam Vac." Thel most warming assumes the voice of a dog regretting his people's divorce. The most impressive reflects on the lifetime achievement of the title in the voice of a guy who sounds something like 50. Loudon Jr. died at 62. Assuming III cuts down on the wine, what he calls "It" may not get him for longer than he might well prefer--or so he believes at a not literally eternal 75. A-

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