When I heard the first song followed by the second song – a ridiculous faux reggae number – I was pretty much done with this record. I thought “Why bother with a record by a guy whose kids are arguably now more famous than him?” I think it was “Kick in the Head” which changed by mind. And then there’s a series of songs which grabbed me at least a little, followed by the live show, in which the audience is nothing if not rapt. So I decided I needed to listen to the whole thing my requisite number of listens. And now, here I am, not sure what to do with this guy and this strange record.
At his best, LoudonWainwright has penetrating, honest insights into relationships and society. At his worst, his lyrics are cynical attempts to curry laughs with a jaded, seen-everything folk audience. Many of his lyrics which struck the audience in the live half as funny now likely strike most of us in the 21st century as kind of appalling. Worse, we’re listening to this through the lens of his children as songwriters in their own right and so I certainly know what they thought of him. There was a time when it was easy to listen to a biting songwriter without worrying that he was an asshole. That time is past. It’s particularly past when his kids have grown up to be songwriters and have written songs about how much of an asshole he is.
It’s not just the songs that I struggle with, though, it’s the format and the sequencing. Most of the studio cuts inhabit a rougher, rootsier version of ’70s the singer-songwriter sound, but those first two tracks feel like they are from a different album. (Hell, even a different performer.) I don’t know why he led with them let alone included them.
And then there’s the live part. The live concert is undeniably compelling, even when you’re wondering why the audience is laughing. He has the audience in the palm of his hand and it’s pretty impressive. But I can’t help but think that show deserves its own album and the rest of the album deserves its own album. I’m guessing he didn’t have enough new material but it sure feels as though he didn’t have enough material from either (likely the studio recordings). And so there is a general sense of filler.
Despite all these reservations, though, there are some really strong songs here, and there are some lines that really get to me. And it’s undeniable that, despite his faults, he is a pretty great and committed performer. And, though I know he is not the greatest guy, I can’t help but be won over more than I’m not.