Loudon Wainwright III has cultivated a reputation as the solipsist songwriter par excellence, his self-conscious self-absorption encapsulated in the sentiments of his classic song “One Man Guy” and his wry admission, in “Harry’s Wall”, that “all the songs I write somehow pertain to me”. Throughout his prolific career Wainwright has anatomised his experiences—and those of his nearest and (not-so-)dearest—in song with a frankness that has been variously disarming and discomforting.
Still, it could be argued that Wainwright has sometimes been at his best when he’s shifted his focus away from himself and turned his acute gaze on the world outside. His 1999 album Social Studies, with its sharp, witty musings on Bill Clinton, Tonya Harding, OJ Simpson, and Jesse Helms, amongst others, was one of his most consistent and accomplished works. His latest release, the followup to his Grammy-winning High Wide and Handsome (2009), is in that mould. 10 Songs for the New Depression is Wainwright’s take on the recession. Though not in Social Studies‘s league in terms of quality, it’s an enjoyable effort nonetheless.
Wainwright’s studio records have sometimes suffered from overproduction, but the lean and mean 10 Songs does not fall into that trap. In keeping with the straitened times that are its subject, the album benefits from a spare, stripped-down approach. The arrangements are focused around Wainwright’s vocal and acoustic guitar, with the result that the record retains something of the freshness and spontaneity of a LWIII live show. (There’s only a single, ill-advised attempt at production gimmickry: the ghostly sound effects added to “Halloween 2009”.)
No Dylan-esque croaker, Wainwright remains in fine, supple voice throughout, zipping through the songs with verve and panache. The material is a mixture of originals and covers which make links between the “old” and “new” Depressions, and the album’s reach—as often with Wainwright—does not extend beyond the US. “There’s a new man down there in D.C. / They say he’s gonna help you and me / On Tuesday they were banging the gong / But all I did was play this song”, he muses on the opening track, “Times is Hard”, injecting a note of cynicism into Obama-mania. An updated “On To Victory, Mr Roosevelt” (written and originally recorded by one W. Lee O’Daniel in 1933) offers a more celebratory perspective on the incumbent president, while the resigned “House” teases out an analogy between a relationship and real estate. Maynard Keynes is name-checked in the pensive “Fear Itself”, while “The Krugman Blues” is Wainwright’s tribute (of sorts) to economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. (“I read the New York Times, that’s where I get my news / Paul Krugman’s on the Op Ed page, that’s where I get the blues…”)
For all that, the album’s most affecting moment comes when Wainwright quits the name-dropping and delivers a disquisition on (personal) depression in the touching and redemptive “The Middle of the Night”. At the other end of the tonal spectrum, the album boasts the endearingly goofy and infuriatingly catchy “Cash For Clunkers”, and it closes with the spry “Got a Ukulele”, which poses the instrument as the solution to the world’s ills. “In these hard times we need ukulele backup”, Wainwright avers. That’s about the extent of the insight that you get from 10 Songs for the New Depression, but the album succeeds in getting you smiling rather than despairing at the mess we’re in, and that’s always been one of Wainwright’s great gifts. Lacking the satirical bite of Social Studies, this is no classic, but it’s a decent enough addition to the LWIII catalogue.