Loudon Wainwright III has enjoyed a remarkable career in music dating back to 1970 and sits as the patriarch of a musical dynasty of considerable standing. There’s his sister Sloan, his daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche and son Rufus. The extended family runs to Suzzy Roche and the McGarrigles, although sadly Kate (Loudon’s first wife) is no longer with us. Throughout his life, Loudon’s often fractious relationships have fuelled his natural songwriting gift. Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), proves that he’s as sharp as ever, witty and wise and given wonderful musical support, making this a classic amongst the 25 plus records he’s made to date.
I had my first Loudon Wainwright III period in the late mid 70’s with the trio of albums, Attempted Moustache, Unrequited and T Shirt nestled in my rapidly expanding LP collection. I’m almost certain that the Old Grey Whistle Test provided the introduction, and I immediately fell for his humour, with his uptight stance giving the impression of a man in mid spasm, wringing the neck of his guitar. Loudon’s keening voice was distinctive enough, but more than anything it was his lyrical prowess, satirical and clever as well as funny, but with a large dose of self deprecation and pathos to give his songs bite. Mostly he seemed incredibly honest, but also sharp in picking at our foibles and frustrations with a potential for a withering line served up on demand.
Regretfully none of those LPs survived the eventual cull that a protracted period of unemployment and a major change in my musical tastes provoked a couple of years down the line. The arrival, however, of the box set a couple of years or so ago, with its typically wry title of 40 Odd Years, provided a perfect opportunity not only for a gentle, nostalgic recollection, but also to catch up with extracts from the many albums that have followed. I had to review that set and it proved to be a joy to listen to, but also left me feeling that I should have been paying more attention and was wrong to let my interest fall away. Everything that had attracted me in the first place was there, from the oldest to the most recent recordings.
The booklet had a nice way of telling his story as well and was liberally peppered with comments and quotes. There are a couple of notable things about his story, the part that family has played and also that certainly before he became a jobbing musician, Loudon’s life had been pretty unremarkable. His given name, Loudon Snowden Wainwright III, who naturally enough followed Loudon Wainwright II into this world, suggests a genteel, middle class comfort if not out and out privilege.
Loudon’s father, LWII (or Jr.), was a noted writer and editor for Life magazine famous for a long running column called The View From Here, which often focussed on his family life in Westchester County. As Loudon would sing in the song about his home life, “I was raised here in Westchester County, I was taught in the Country Day School, We were richer than most, I don’t mean to boast, But I swam in the country club pool.”
Perhaps there was an inevitability that the young Loudon would pick up his father’s gift for words, but as he points out in the booklet for the box set, the last thing he wanted as a teenager was to be influenced by his dad. Seeing LW Jr. work had convinced LW III that writing was boring, but music gave him a way to express himself, and five chords learnt in his early teenage years proved versatile enough to form the basis of his first clutch of songs. The New York coffee bars and clubs then provided the outlet and as the 60s waned, he was discovered and made his recorded debut in 1970.
Thankfully Loudon proved robust enough to survive the new Bob Dylan tag, but hit on a style of autobiographical writing that he explained, “I just discovered that’s what worked for me, even though I admire people like Frank Loesser or James Taylor who write more generally, or Bob Dylan, who writes in a more cryptic style. Pretty early on I realised that what worked best for me was writing about my typical and not very eventful life.” He wrote about his father and about his home and as he puts it, “Also my shitty relationships and romantic travails.” As he also quickly realised, “Come to think of it my writing is generic, because what happened to me happened to damned near everyone.”
Recent years have also brought the release of the Grammy Winning High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, and two albums of mostly original new songs, 10 Songs For The New Depression, which actually added two from the great depression and Older Than My Old Man Now, an album title that recognised his father had died prematurely at 63. Whilst the first of those stands out as a different kind of record, in reality in fits well into his catalogue, while the three releases as a whole show that Loudon Wainwright III remains true to his original calling some 40 Odd Years and 25 albums later.
Which brings us to Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), which finds LWIII at his acerbic best, picking at typical concerns and frustrations. It sounds fabulous too with a production from Dave Mansfield that treats these songs to variety of arrangements that offer a few surprises. As well as Dave’s multi-instrumental abilities, there’s a considerable cast of players and special guests include, Martha Wainwright, Chaim Tannenbaum and Aofie O’Donovan.
It starts in lively style with a rock ‘n’ roller replete with a brass section called Brand New Dance in which Loudon bemoans the indignities of getting older. There’s the difficulty of bending down to put on your shoes, the snoring wife who is none the less a martyr, but also the senior discount and a seat on the bus. In the end he turns his cutting lines on election time, with the wisdom of age dictating, “But it’s the same old same old all over again.” Spaced by contrast is a quasi-jazz-ska-oompah odyssey into the delights of finding a parking space, with a sly nod to Sun Ra and an acknowledgement that, “A car in the city’s just a pain in the ass.” Then there’s an acoustic lament to the beggar bypassed, In A Hurry, with a gentle suggestion that charity might be good for the soul.
Typically Loudon’s concerns take on personal problems with mental health and both Depression Blues and the title track examine his state of mind, the cost of therapy and the ageing process. He’s at his droll best singing lines like, “I’m not the man I used to be though we’re genetically the same,” in I Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), before pointing out, “I’m feeling sorry for myself but if I don’t who will?” Love and Romance naturally enough make their appearance. The Morgue is the blackest of summaries of the effects of a broken marriage, while I Loved Your Mother shows the tender side of Loudon as he sings to his daughter Martha, who guests on the track. Man & Dog muses on the refuge of walking the dog after a fight and the role of man’s best friend as an ice breaker with the fairer sex. Looking At The Calendar is another tinder dry summary of trying to schedule a breakup.
America’s peculiarities come under the spotlight and Harlan County is about the problems of getting a drink in what appears to be a prohibition zone and sounds destined for a folk club near you. I’ll Be Killing You At Christmas takes aim at the NRA. God & Nature seems to be a pretty straight-laced reminder of the value of a moral code.
There’s one song that doesn’t come from Loudon’s pen and that’s Harmless, a curious, wistful ode to the simple life from the Bard Of Dundee, Michael Marra. The chorus of “Harmless, harmless, there’s never no bother from me, I go to the library take out a book, And then I come home for my tea,” captures a delightful philosophy. It perhaps finds its partner in the closing Last Day Of The Year, which is a thoughtful reflection on the need to strike out for new goals and the freshness engendered by the change of the year.
The arrangements and the playing are superb throughout and every bit the match for Loudon’s wit and wisdom. Over 40 Odd Years, Loudon Wainwright III has stuck to his guns and remained true to his muse, even as his fortunes have changed. Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) is another instalment of sophisticated savvy, that proves the method in his musings and is oddly life affirming in its clever, funny, world weary documentary of Loudon’s current condition. All life is here, yours and mine too.
Review by: Simon Holland
Man and Dog
Released 28 July 2014 via Proper Records
Loudon will be performing at this year’s Cambridge Folk festival on Saturday, 2 August
More dates and details here: http://www.lw3.com/