So, after the „Swimming Song“ haunted me for weeks with its beauty, I finally got down to listen to some Loudon Wainwright which is a lot of Loudon Wainwright because over 40 years he has released a shitload of records. And boy, what can I say, I am overwhelmed. I mean, I am lucky enough to have listened to some amazing music in the last months but I am still always flabbergasted when I stumble over music that just injects something new in my life.
His whole life unravels in his albums, I always appreciate intimacy like that, it might hurt a lot and be cringeworthy at times (especially given that the whole Wainwright family is painfully open about their familiarly tragedies) but it goes underneath your skin and because Loudon is also a fantastic humorist, most of the bitter songs get elevated a little by his great sense of humor and ironic self-reflection.
I recently just thought about why some musicians don’t really have to try something crazy with each album while others bore you after the second album that sounds remotely the same. I am a sucker for bands that reinvent themselves with every album but at the same time, I love to listen to Elbow or Bruce Springsteen who continually have the same style but each album is fantastic.
It feels the same with Loudon and I think the secret lies in something, I heard just a couple of weeks ago from Josh Tillman: it’s about the narrative voice. If the storytelling is good (musically as well as lyrically), you don’t have to reinvent yourself.
And Loudon is a brilliant story-teller. Sure, many songs are laugh out loud funny and happy but there are also a lot that carry a pain with them that takes over your whole being. It’s this honesty and the fact that you just belief him. It’s not about taking every word he says about his family and about his life face value but you feel that he means it when he sings it. And that’s the big, beautiful difference between people like him and all the tons and tons of young and old songwriters that don’t get it and only want to be meaningful and emotional. That’s bull, you either have this voice or you don’t, you can’t force it.
That doesn’t mean that there is not a wide variety of sounds in his music, the whole Americana instrument shack is invited as well as many of its related genres, whether it be folk, some blues, some hillbilly and bluegrass, there is even a progish song (“Crime of passion”, it’s the Hammond) on “Unrequited”.
Loudon’s newest album is called „Older than my old man now“ because he is 65, his dad was 64 when he died. It’s a fantastic album about growing old and being old and much derives from the humor (there are two hilarious songs about meds and sex on there) and this conversational atmosphere of Loudon’s narration.
There is one song („The Days that we die“) where he recites an article written by his father and then sings together with his son. There is such a lovely and heartbreaking warmth to the song, the underlying grief of all the bitterness that had existed once between these generations and the willingness to come together in their art despite all that. As soon as you listen to this song, there will be ninjas that cut onions next to you to make you cry, I assure you that.
Look, usually, I am way too lazy to listen through a discography that is bigger than the very expensive chocolate cake at my supermarket which I now and then buy and then have ridiculously decadent cake time for a week or so (I live alone, I don’t even have to share!). But in this case I feel so compelled to hear his stories, it’s like discovering a good author and in a haze ordering all his books despite not having the time to read all of them.
I can’t even concentrate on other music, I listen to it (because I kinda have to as a music nerd) but I want to get back to him and get to know every single song.
It took me a while to get there, to get to know him (despite being a Rufus fan for quite some time) but I am glad that I finally got around, thanks to Bruce Peninsula and spotify, there will soon be a row of Loudon albums on my shelf and in my heart (haha sorry, how cheesy was that? I just had to write it but as soon as I did I realized that it was too much, too much, just as the three slices of chocolate cake I just had).
Ok, because it’s so fascinating and sad and beautiful and true, here’s a collection of the Wainwright tragedies sown together by their music.
When Loudon and Kate (McGarrigle, together with her sister Anna a famous folk duo back in the 60s and 70s) had their first child, Loudon apparently had ambiguous feelings towards his son which might have stemmed from the fact that his own relationship with his father was strained a lot.
His song „A father and son“ tries to come to terms with it and in the hilariously weird and Freudian „Rufus is a tit man“ you get pretty much slapped in the face with a possibly helpless father who couldn’t deal with the responsibility for a child he suddenly had to face.
It goes like that, it is hard to suddenly not be the center of your own life anymore because your child has taken that role.
Just as tense as Loudon’s relationship with his father was, it seemed to be with his son, who wrote „Dinner at Eight“, reflecting on how much he wanted to see more than dry wit but real sadness and hurt in his father’s face just to know that he was more than a punchline and that all this tension and the arguments where signs of love. It breaks your heart.
Loudon later left Kate when Rufus and their second child, Martha, were very young, he left his family for another woman and Kate sang together with her sister „Go Leave“ which seemed doubly tragic as on the very same album she covered Loudon’s „Swimming Song“.
Loudon’s songs for Martha were amazing and silly and painful, „Pretty little Martha“ was pretty much a „Shhh“ and lollipop for little Martha, „I wrote a song for your big brother now I’ve written one for you“ he sings, as if little Martha had a hissy fit and only needed to be told that she was pretty. It is sad that he sings that he can’t wait to see her and her brother, maybe on her birthday and then have a song like „Five years old“ that apologizes to little Martha for not being there for her birthday. The absent father who didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought came to realize how far apart they were when he wrote „Hitting You“, recalling an incident when he slapped her and immediately regretted it, too late, though, things like that never go away.
Martha’s answer was a lot more angry than Rufus’. „Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole“ was not subtle but got the point through, talking about all the times she felt as if she never was enough, never was seen as someone who could achieve anything. No surprise, for a girl that was told that she was pretty although she was so much more. It’s a great song for us women’s libbers but it’s a lot more, it’s a song for everyone who feels trapped in a one-dimensional role, a stereotype, a cliché or a single impression.
They all seemed to get together at some point, though. Loudon sang with his children, on his recent album all of them feature and it shows that sometimes it needs a lot of work if love is involved. You see, if there wasn’t love, it would be easier to let go.
I haven’t heard all of them yet but my favourite album so far is „The last man on earth“, which after a long time-out from music dealt with the death of his mother just as the death of Rufus’ mother left a deep mark on Rufus. It’s weird, sometimes, how we mirror our parents and vice versa.
It’s definitely the saddest and most earnest album in the long row but it does have the inevitable banjo induced hillbilly tunes peeking out. It’s the sense of solitude, though, that makes this album, you can feel the isolation Loudon put himself under to come to terms with his loss. there is a line on this album that breaks your heart.
“They say in the end, your good friends pull you through but everyone knows, my best friend was you”