Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-11-25


Loudon Wainwright III: 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.

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