Roy Edroso: Loudon Wainwright’s “Strange Weirdos”
Thursday, September 20, 2007
OLD MAN BLUES. It disturbed me, while downloading Loudon Wainwright III's Strange Weirdos, to confront the sidebar information that other purchasers of this merchandise also favored the soundtrack to "Grey's Anatomy." So it's come to this: Plush Pop for Then People. But I love LWIII and hoped he would drop a few barbs in the syrup nonetheless.
The songs shamble along, displaying LWIII's command of his writerly gifts -- crisply observed detail, wordplay, fluent appropriation of various styles, and juxtaposition -- without inspiring anything but vague appreciation for obvious talent. The production gives his songs musical settings that are technically appropriate to the themes, but this has the effect in most cases of double-underlining the point and writing notes in the margins. The one big exception sounds like a fortunate failure of the producer's energy: apparently no one knew what to do with "Lullaby,"* so they just made it sort of pretty, which beautifully sets off the opening: "Shut up and go to bed/put some pillow under your head/I'm sick and tired of all of your worries/shut up and say goodnight." (* When I posted this I had forgotten, or never known, that "Lullaby" originally appeared on Attempted Mustache. I think the old version serves the song better: the lyrics are muttered and wan; it really sounds like a bad bedtime, whereas the new one sounds like 4 p.m. in some studio. I hear the basic tracks for Attempted Mustache were recorded in five days. As the history of sound recording shows, increased professionalism is not always an advantage.)
Unfortunately, after a while the songwriter runs out of energy too. I am forced to say that this happens throughout Strange Weirdos. For the first time that I've noticed, LWIII's maudlin streak isn't leading to anything interesting. On the title song, "It starts with a sentence that might last a lifetime" is very promising, but the next line, "Or it might all just go down in flames," betrays the promise.
It's always instructive when the best song on a weak album is the cover. Usually it's because the artists are relieved at last to cluster their talents around a dead certain winner. Peter Blegvad's wonderful "Daughter" gets a professional, respectful treatment from the band, and you can hear that respect in LWIII's voice, too -- along with everything else the song demands: awe and amusement, protectiveness and a premonition of loss.
I love LWIII's voice. I even love the arch tone in it, which may be a matter of necessity because LWIII so often sounds arch. It's most obvious when he tries to be bluesy or to "rock," or do anything besides sing the damn song. (This is the occupational hazard of an ironic romantic trapped in a musical idiom that tends to exacerbate romance -- the form being "singer/songwriter, late 20th century," which he still is in 2007.) From the perspective of Strange Weirdos, I begin to think that LWIII's propensity to strike poses with his voice is an admission of discomfort with the formats in which he's found himself -- or maybe even in the forms he's chosen for himself. Now he is an Adult Contemporary for real, his latest vehicle tooling smoothly like a refurbished roadster along highways outside major cities, the stranger side of his talent rattling contentiously under the hood.
Whenever he has dared to be his own weird self, though, he has been brilliant. "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," as weird as Daniel Johnston but with the coherence of great poetry, is the eternal, shining example. He's managed the trick many times, and once is enough to make you a genius in this game. He's capable of it even in his fussy old-man mode. "The Last Man on Earth," from 2001, is a superior version of Strange Weirdos' middle-age lament, "Doin' The Math." The newer song, done as a creepy L.A. lounge blues slide, is kinda funny but stews too much in its own resentment. "The Last Man of Earth" is cleaner, plainer, a throwback to the young strummer LWIII used to be. It has jokes, too, but most of them have a sharp tang that quickly pushes off any hint of self-regard. You don't have to relate to his condition: you can simply hear it. The recorded version is, alas, fussy and marred with underlinings, but I had the good fortune to hear him do it solo-acoustic on TV, and there the climactic passage had the force of a sharp slap:
Kids used to say their prayers
Before they went to bed
St. John told us that God is love
Nietzsche said he was dead
This thing we call existence
Who knows what it all means?
Time and Life and People
Are just glossy magazines
That last couplet, like the
solitude of the hero in "One Man Guy" and other high achievements of ironic
romantics, is a selfish dirty trick. Which is what keeps me listening to
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September 24, 2007