Bittersweet confrontations with old age – from Westchester’s master satirist Loudon Wainwright III.
Release Date: 19th August 2022
Label: Proper Records
Formats: CD / Download
We go back quite a long way, Loudon Wainwright III and I. All the way back to 1971, in fact, when I first saw him perform on an edition of Disco 2, BBC2’s predecessor to The Old Grey Whistle Test. As I recall, his short set that evening included versions of Down Drinking at the Bar and School Days – songs that still occasionally feature in his live repertoire even today. I was transfixed. Here, was a master of lyricism – someone who could take everyday situations and add just the right touches of jaundiced bitterness and humour to ensure that his listeners would never take even the most mundane situations at face value ever again. My mother, who was also watching, wasn’t quite so impressed, calling him “An arrogant young man,” and expressing indignation at his claim, in School Days that “I was Buddha, I was Christ.” That indignation served, of course, only to strengthen my admiration for this peerless wordsmith. He’s been described as a “Tragicomedian Extraordinaire” and, I think, that’s a description that just about nails it.
Loudon Wainwright III was just 25 years old when that formative broadcast hit the airwaves and he was just starting out on a remarkable career that is now about to yield its 30th album release – and the good news is that the jaundiced bitterness and humour that first attracted me is still there by the bucketful, perhaps tempered, nowadays, with just a hint of sweetness and, certainly, by the wisdom and experience that old age brings. Loudon is now 75 years old and, on Lifetime Achievement, he explores the benefits, memories and the implications of what reaching such a ripe old age entails.
Loudon Wainwright III will be a familiar name to many At The Barrier regulars. His extensive catalogue of songs includes such gems as The Swimming Song, The Drinking Song, The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, Be Careful – There’s a Baby in the House and, of course, Dead Skunk. He was formerly married to the late, great singer Kate McGarrigle and, more recently, to Suzzy Roche and he’s father to Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. That’s quite a musical dynasty. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, his songs have been covered by a stellar array of top-notch performers, including Johnny Cash, Mose Allison, Bonnie Rait and son, Rufus. He’s even had an acting role in the long-running TV show M*A*S*H. I‘m not alone in recognising Loudon Wainwright III as a major talent.
Lifetime Achievement is Loudon’s first collection of original material since 2014’s Haven’t Got The Blues Yet and, believe me, it’s an album that’s been well worth the wait. As I’ve already indicated, ageing is the dominant theme of Lifetime Achievement. It’s a subject that has long been a Wainwright obsession – as he explains: “I have a song that I wrote in 1972 called ‘New Paint,’ which is about a guy trying to pick up a girl in a park, saying ‘If I was sixteen again.’ I wrote that song when I was twenty-five. I had Watch Me Rock, I’m Over Thirty. I had a song, The Birthday Present, that I sang a capella in a shower about hitting age 50. So 75 is a new number, but it’s just another number.”
Loudon continues: “I had a very romantic idea that I would be dead by the time I was 25, just because that sounded so cool and groovy and dangerous. I’m happy it didn’t work out that way. When I think about the fact that I’ve been doing this for half a century, it’s kind of incredible. The place I played last night, I played fifty years ago. It’s encouraging in a funny kind of way – that it’s gone on this long and it’s still a lot of fun. The performing part of it, and the mysterious thing of getting to write a new song. After the doldrums of the past two years, I had a creative burst in the last year, and that felt good. It was something to build a record on.”
And that creative burst has resulted in 15 excellent new songs. Right from the outset, Loudon demonstrates that his lyrical fluidity is undiminished in I Been, the album’s opening track. Featuring just Loudon on guitar and harmonica, he brings us up to date with what he’s been up to since we last heard from him, before making the first of many references to his advancing years: “I’m figuring a way to live one more day/ I’ll keep going until I’m gone.” Age remains the theme for the a capella One Wish, a contemplative song which sees Loudon blowing out the candles on his [75th?] birthday cake and wondering why, with all those candle to extinguish, he still only gets one wish.
Loudon is joined by Will Holshouser on accordion for the excellent It Takes 2. In part, the song is a sequel to One Man Guy, a song from his 1985 I’m Alright album, one of my all-time favourites. This time around, Loudon recognizes that, rather than despite his earlier assertion of independence, he actually needs the help and support of someone else. Fam Vac – an abbreviation of “Family Vacation”- is classic Loudon Wainwright, with arrogance and self-preservation giving way to sentimentality as the song progresses. The song’s marvelous opening couplet: “I need a family vacation, I mean a family vacation alone/ I’m gonna pack up the car, load up the bike and the kayak, and leave the f*cking family at home” sets the scene. Loudon goes on to comment that, whilst away, “….. I might miss my people, but right now, I can’t stand ‘em no more,” Before ending the song with an acknowledgement that his family might just feel the same way about him.
Chaim Tannenbaum (banjo) and David Mansfield (mandolin) are the guests for Hell, an intriguing song in which Loudon pays a return visit to Hades – he’d been there before, apparently but, as Beelzebub remarked – “You got another body, and you still got it wrong!” The song ends with the condemned Loudon joining a softball team made up of deceased dictators and genocide exponents, including Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosovic. As a complete contrast, Little Piece of Me is a bluegrass-flavoured stomper in which Loudon looks back over his life as a touring musician and reflects on the places, all over the world, that he’s visited and, in his words, left a part of himself. It’s another song that confronts the inexorable process of ageing, but in the most joyful way possible.
Chaim Tannenbaum is back, this time on harmonica, for the wonderful No Man’s Land, a song in which Loudon considers the lives of an estranged couple (a subject with which he is intimately familiar) from the viewpoint of the couple’s dog. The dog, frustrated at being passed between the couple’s respective homes on opposite sides of Central Park, asks itself “Why don’t they just lick, make up – what’s the big deal?”. Tony Scherr plays some wonderful double bass on Back in Your Town, a wistful reflection of past relationships, before Loudon is joined by a full band that includes Alphonso Horne on trumpet, Ryan Wiesheit on saxes, Dan Levine on trombone, Tony Scherr on electric guitar, Jon Cowherd on keyboards, Andy Hess on bass and Tony Mason on drums for Town & Country, a song in which Loudon celebrates a [post lockdown?] return to city life after an extended period of isolation in the country. Loudon thrills to the round-the-clock wailing of sirens, the masked masses and rats invading the floor of the restaurant where he is dining before, in typical LWIII style, he starts to anticipate the fading of the novelty and a renewed desire to return to the country.
Island, a surprisingly gentle song about the glories of isolation, leads into the excellent It, another a capella number with Loudon and Chaim Tannenbaum hitting some delicious harmonies. We’re not told directly what the “It” of the song’s title actually is, but, in keeping with theme of the album and the indication that, whatever “It” is will cause deterioration and devastation and will “Shit in your lap,” I suspect that they are, once again, singing about old age.
Inspired by the first word that daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche uttered, Hat is a marvelous song that considers everything that a hat represents and identifies everything that can be done with that often disregarded item of clothing. The song is a wonderful demonstration of what a lyrical genius can extract from the (seemingly) most mundane of subjects – and, remember – “It’s white for the good guys and black for the bad!” The full band are back for Lifetime Achievement, the album’s title track, this time with David Mansfield contributing some divine pedal steel. With lyrics like “I’m near the end – time’s almost up – so what have I achieved?” Loudon reflects on his life and concludes that, despite the awards and critical recognition that has come his way, his greatest achievement was finding a life partner. And, when push comes to shove, that’s something we can all agree with.
Age and mortality once more rear their unavoidable heads in How Old is 75? In this most bittersweet of songs, Loudon considers the death of his parents, both at ages younger than the one he has now reached, and contemplates the reducing span of his own remaining days. With lines like: “How old is 75? So old that you’re hardly alive… You get what you get, so why get upset? We all want a little more time” and “In five years I’ll be 80, I’ll hear the fat lady” he pulls no punches and, admirably, shows a willingness to confront the inevitability of what’s soon to come.
There’s just enough time for one more song; Loudon picks up his ukulele for Fun & Free a lovely ditty that celebrates the joys of performing household tasks before blossoming into the delivery of a sage piece of advice about enjoying your single, short, life to the full – and then that’s it. Lifetime Achievement is an excellent album – up there with Loudon’s best – and it certainly demonstrates that, despite the advancing years, Loudon Wainwright III is still as sharp, witty and honest as he’s always been. Fantastic.
And – We’re delighted to announce that Loudon Wainwright III will be touring the UK this coming September. As you’ll have guessed, At The Barrier will be there and we strongly recommend that you come along too. Full details of the tour are available here.
Watch the official video to Town & Country, a track from the album, here: