Loudon Wainwright III: “Recovery”
Early in his career, Loudon Wainwright III was one of many young folksingers heralded as the next Bob Dylan, a short-lived prediction that he slyly skewered in a song called “Talking New Bob Dylan.” In retrospect, the comparison probably wasn’t fair to ol’ Bob, and it definitely wasn’t fair to Loudon. Never was Wainwright particularly close to picking up Dylan’s baton– in fact, he was something much better than that: An artist with a voice all his own.
Comparing someone to Dylan, of course, could mean any number of things, as Dylan’s career has been so long and multi-faceted, which is part of why the comparison has never really stuck; Wainwright, for instance, has never touched the absurdist whimsy, protest blues, or rambling story-songs that have, at various times, characterized Dylan’s work. But if Dylan is rock’s greatest poet, Wainwright is its greatest diarist– consistently witty, consistently heartfelt, and consistently excellent for so very long, Wainwright writes songs that are lifted directly from his daily life, or sometimes from newspaper headlines, to create a voice that matches Seinfeldian observational humor with deep, universal feelings.
In other words, his songs are travelogues, little snippets of life from specific times and locations, which has the rather uncanny effect of making his songs timeless and surprisingly pliable at the same time. Though the greatness of Wainwright’s music is indisputable, the exact meaning of his art is transient, relative to the artist himself. “Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House,” for example, was a cute and knowingly funny song when Wainwright wrote it as a new parent, but it takes on a new dimension of meaning when it’s sun now, by a 61-year-old father of two pop singers who are arguably more famous than old dad is. It’s that dichotomy of timelessness and transience that have made Wainwright’s body of work so lasting, seeming to grow in stature with each passing year, and it’s also what makes Recovery such a fantastic record– because it’s one that deliberately capitalizes on his music’s malleable meaning, and to splendid result.
Evidently, folks have been clamoring for Wainwright to re-record some of his older material for some time now, updating the sparse, guy-and-guitar arrangements with fuller production and allowing the singer’s gained wisdom and experience to inform his own performance. For a while he held out, but eventually someone was able to change his mind– specifically, Joe Henry, Wainwright’s friend, producer and collaborator from Strange Weirdos, last year’s LW3 album that was, at the time, the most colorful and fully-realized record of his career. Henry has established himself over the past few years as the single best producer around for singer-songwriter albums, and his sensibility meshes perfectly with Wainwright’s goofy humor and big-heart. Henry may be the only person alive who could’ve talked Wainwright into making an album like Recovery, and praise the Lord he did; the album, which finds LW3 revisiting thirteen songs from his earliest albums, guided by Henry and backed by the same terrific band from Strange Weirdos, is a smashing success on three level: It is immediately the essential Loudon Wainwright album, an exemplary folk album, and an utterly profound work of art about age and experience.
It makes sense that it’s arguably the single finest album in Wainwright’s canon, and certainly the best summary of his talents– after all, he’s one of our finest songwriters, and, with this collection, he and Henry are able to pick the very best songs from his early career, meaning that they’re working only with first-tier material. And in this setting, none of these LW3 classics have ever sounded better, as they’re performed here with the help of a sterling cast of musicians. But don’t be deceived, as this is hardly a full-band album, but rather a singer-songwriter album through and through, with Henry keeping the emphasis squarely on the singer and his songs and using the supporting musicians to add color and depth, not to steal the show. Thus, while it’s a much fuller and more vibrant sound than the early, bare-bones versions of these songs, it’s still relatively sparse, marked only by piano, drums, upright bass, and some steel guitar. The latter instrument adds a mournful quality to wistful story-songs like “New Paint,” while some woozy electric guitar work and punch-drunk percussion create a suitably disorienting effect on “The Drinking Song.” A banjo adds a touch of bluegrass to the opener, “Black Uncle Remus,” and a string quartet brings a cinematic flourish to the closing number, “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” but, beyond that, these are simply tasteful, elegant recordings, marked by an artist’s sense of restraint and nuance. Wainwright, of course, has only grown better and better in his vocal qualities, and he sounds even more energetic and joyful here than he did on Strange Weirdos.
But it’s not just a great Loudon album; it goes without saying, really, that it’s also a superb folk album by anyone’s standards– which is, of course, due to the quality of the material and the mastery of the performances and the production. But even more than that, it’s a great folk album because of the variety of tones and sounds that it employs, for its complexity and its sophistication. The best folk albums sound simple but reveal themselves to be far more complicated with repeated listens, and that’s certainly the case here; there’s humor and heartbreak, wit and wisdom tucked into every word and every note of music here, and the more it’s played, the more the album reveals itself to be very much of a piece– no easy feat, considering that its songs were all written for entirely different records.
And that’s the album’s masterstroke. This isn’t a platform for Wainwright to re-launch his career in the wake of his success with Strange Weirdos, nor is it the artist and his producer-friend indulging in their newfound camaraderie. Recovery is very much an album that tells a story– Wainwright’s story, a story told in retrospect but very much alive and in the moment. Henry and Wainwright have noted that the songs here were not chosen haphazardly– they were chosen because of the new resonance they take on when sung by an older, wiser Wainwright. Notice how the sarcastic arrogance of “School Days” has been tempered into something that sounds a lot more like regret, and how the one-night-stand ode “Motel Blues” gains a certain sadness and remorse. But notice also how “Muse Blues,” LW3’s classic take on writer’s block, retains all of its fervor and rage, but finds a level of humor that could only come from a veteran musician who’s been through it all more times than he might care to admit. Consider how his bittersweet song about the pursuit of fame, “Saw Your Name in the Paper,” might mean something a little different coming from a man with two children chasing after stardom of their own. Hear the compassion and character in his voice, and witness how much these songs obviously mean to him.
They’ll mean something to you, too– these are songs of empathy and songs of experience, and their joy and pain are contagious. These are familiar entries from folk music’s greatest diarist, and, at the same time, they’re completely new pages in Wainwright’s story. It’s much more than just a recovery, a summation of everything that’s come before it– it’s also a bold step forward, a brave record that takes stock of the past as a means of looking ahead. It’s moving and profound, it’s funny and it’s sad, and it’s a seminal recording from an artist whose every song and every album has been nothing less than essential.