Loudon Wainwright III – Loudon Wainwright III / Album II: Album Review

Two-in-One package of Loudon Wainwright III’s earliest recorded adventures.

Release Date:  13th January 2023

Label: Cherry Red / Morello Records

Formats: CD

The past couple of months have seen quite a flurry of action on the Loudon Wainwright III front.  Back in August, we were charmed to our very roots by the old man’s 31st album of original material, Lifetime Achievement, his collection of bittersweet confrontations with the relentless march of old age – one of our At The Barrier Albums of 2022.  Then, in September, we dropped into the Liberty Theatre in Dublin to see Loudon mix the highlights of Lifetime Achievement with a few inspired deep dives into his extensive back catalogue.  And now our friends at Cherry Red have turned the clock well and truly back with this reissue of Loudon’s first two albums – the eponymous Loudon Wainwright III from 1970 and its follow-up, the inevitably-titled Album II, from 1971 – collected together on a single CD.

The albums form an intriguing document of Loudon’s transformation from his early billing as The New Bob Dylan (Loudon notes that every new singer-songwriter to appear on the scene received such branding back then…) into the sometimes savage satirist that has kept us on our toes for the past fifty years and it’s refreshing – and not a little surprising – to note just how many of LWIII’s earliest compositions have endured to become, if not mainstays, then regular visitors to his live repertoire, even to this day.

To LWIII followers who have become more used to renditions of these songs by the mellower, worldly, mature Loudon, either at his live shows or via the re-recorded versions that formed the 2008 retrospective collection, Recovery, it may well be something of a revelation to hear the songs in their original form.  As Loudon himself admits: “…My voice was much higher back then…” but there’s no doubting the naked passion and belief that Loudon put into these songs; as he says today: “They’re very intense, and the songs are good – if a little naïve.  The songs are based on reality, but there is exaggeration too.”

Recorded in New York City during the summer of 1970, the debut album forms the first eleven tracks of this 24-track collection.  The songs are primitive in some ways, and many lack the overt humour that was soon to become such a significant LWIII trademark, but there’s no doubt that, in amongst the mix, there are some solid-gold classics.  Some, such as opening track School Days, which, with lines like “I was Keats, I was Blake” and “I was Buddha, I was Christ” used to so annoy my mother, the wonderful Glad to See You’ve Got Religion which gave we Loudon listeners our first taste of the no-holds-barred cynicism we would soon come to love (I particularly enjoy the line “Glad to see you don’t discharge a drop of your procreative juice”) and the intriguing Movies Are A Mother to Me – an early slice of Wainwright critical self-analysis – have become well-known staples of the LWIII canon, but there’s a lot more to this first album than merely the “hits.”

For instance, Loudon ponders the deterioration of Pennsylvania’s industrial landscape and heritage in the clever, poetic Ode To A Pittsburgh; the entertaining Uptown, a love/hate contemplation of the attractions and distractions of New York City that include some fantastic rhymes and copious examples of place-dropping, gives a sound indication of the irreverent character that Loudon was soon to become, and the hilarious Bruno’s Place offers a delightful, wordy, Subterranean Homesick Blues-type eulogy to a lovely restaurant, down on Seventh Street.

By the time Album II made its appearance in February 1971, Loudon was in little doubt with regard to his satirical destiny.  The “serious” songs are almost (but not quite) absent and the trademark bittersweet humour is served up by the ladleful.  Motel Blues, arguably the best lyric ever written about the loneliness and – maybe – the pointlessness of a musician’s life on the road retains its relevance even now (the song was, perhaps, the greatest highlight of Loudon’s recent UK/Ireland shows).  And I believe that Be Careful There’s A Baby in the House, a song that will surely resonate with any parent who has witnessed the tyranny that an 8-pound bundle of joy is capable of exercising, marks the point at which Loudon’s songwriting truly came of age.

And there’s more.  The blackest of Loudon’s black humour gets a welcome outing in the three-song medley I Know I’m Unhappy/ Suicide Song/ Glenville Reel, Loudon’s tribulations – particularly having his beard and hair shaved off whilst suffering incarceration after a minor drugs bust – are recounted in the wonderful Samson and The Warden and Plane Too comprises a delightful listing of the things that an airline passenger sees and experiences, including vomit bags, oxygen, the “No Smoking” signs (in English and in French), flushing toilets, the food, the drink and the other passengers.  It’s a wonderful reminder of how mind-numbingly boring long flights really are.

For the album’s only non-LWIII composition, the traditional Old Paint, Loudon is joined by his soon-to-be-wife Kate McGarrigle – who sings some wonderful harmonies in the song’s chorus – and Saul Broudy, who adds atmospheric harmonica.  The song is a diversion from the lashings of satire, but it fits well with the mood of the album.  And, just to remind us that misery and despair were still on the menu, Loudon rounded off his second album with the sobering Winter Song, in which – using lyrics like: “If Spring is a maid, then Summer is a whore,” he takes us around the year to remind us that dull, dour Winter will always return to spoil the party.

The collection is rounded off with the bonus track, Drinking Song, a track that would feature on Loudon’s next album, 1972’s (yes, you’ve guessed it…) Album III.  It’s another Wainwright classic – an insightful observation of the perils of heavy drinking.  And, in typical LWIII fashion, he doesn’t hold back, as staggering, puking, fighting and physical deterioration all get a mention as he works towards that concluding line: “When drunks aren’t drunk, they crave for drink.” Of his debut album, Loudon says: “I remember when I made my first album for Atlantic.  I was always saying ‘I want it to be a record – not only a recording, but a document that captures a moment.’  I was 21 and very serious and I thought I’d be dead in four years.  So I wanted to make a testament.  I wanted to write a group of songs and get them down in the best possible way.  I like to think they might last a while.”  By the time Album II came along, Loudon had carved a significant niche for himself and the critics were starting to sit up and take notice.  Rolling Stone, in particular was effusive in its praise for the second album and there was little doubt that a major talent had arrived.  That major talent remains with us today – at the age of 76, and something tells me that we’ve yet to hear the last from Loudon Wainwright III.

Watch Loudon Wainwright III perform Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House – a track from the album – here:

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