[31 May 2007]
By all accounts, Knocked Up will be the funniest movie of the year; director Judd Apatow and co-writer and star Seth Rogen have already teamed up on both Freaks and Geeks and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the cast is stocked with a whole crapload of other hilarious people.
Fitting, then, that the soundtrack is being provided by Loudon Wainwright III, one of the great wiseasses in American music. While he may not be as well-known these days as his children Rufus and Martha, L-III has been making strange hilarious twisted deep folk-rock music since the early 1970s. Early albums like Attempted Mustache are pretty much revered in certain circles, but 2005’s Here Come the Choppers had a hell of a lot of bite to go with its bark.
This thing here is not really a “soundtrack” per se, as none of the songs here exist in the movie except in instrumental versions or over the closing credits. But the whole thing feels pretty cinematic anyway. These songs are hard-edged and soft-hearted, happy and sad, hopeful and cynical, all at the same time. They sound beautiful too, thanks to avant-pop producer Joe Henry and a few well-placed special guests (Richard Thompson here, Van Dyke Parks there, etc.)
Take “Valley Morning”, for example. This perfectly constructed composition gives us a narrator who may or may not be Wainwright himself (I’m guessing not), just drinking coffee and watching his upper-middle-class neighborhood wake up. He is bemused by the illegal workers who will soon come to make the whole place pretty; he is annoyed by the neighbor kid’s band; he is resigned to his governor being “an actor who speaks with an accent”—but although he is kind of a conservative stick-in-the-mud, this narrator is still a decent enough guy, the kind of guy you’d like to drink coffee with. This forms a perfect bookend with the opener, “Grey in L.A.”, in which Wainwright exults over how effed-up Los Angeles and its residents get when it rains.
There are too many other great songs here to list, but I’m going to try. “X or Y” is a rousing gospel tune about the arbitrary binaries of gender and genetics, and is my go-to choice for mixtapes these days. (Extra kudos to Henry for making this sound as fun and loose and celebratory as it needed to sound.) “Daughter” is a tear-jerker about his young daughter—but also maybe Martha?—with the most sentimental/anti-sentimental lyrics of the year: “That’s my daughter in the water / Every time she fell I caught her / Every time she fell / That’s my daughter in the water / I lost every time I fought her / I lost every time.”
Of course, this wouldn’t be an L-III record without some miserablism, and “You Can’t Fail Me Now” comes through loud and clear on that score. The desperation of our narrator is almost unbearable: “We’re taught to love the worst of us / And mercy more than life, but trust me: / Mercy’s just a a warning shot across the bow / I live for yours, and you can’t fail me now.” His voice has lost none of its power over the years, and gained a depth that can be truly scary, as he shows on a savage new version of his anti-lullaby “Lullaby”. The original was written about Rufus, and is probably the ship that launched a thousand therapy sessions: “Shut up and count some sheep / And do me a favor don’t bitch in your sleep / No more agony, no more sorrow.” And “Final Frontier” is a spooky tune all about how Loudon can never actually say the word “love,” but even here there is a huge punchline: “The number of letters is four / Such a big deal should have many more / Though “God” has just three / There’s two in the word “me” / So I suppose less can be more.”
But these are outliers here; there is more happy fun stuff than on any other Wainwright record I can think of. “Feel So Good” is a love song, no matter how many cynical signifiers he throws in; “So Much to Do” is another, with a Randy Newman vibe and a hearty spirit: “Forget the past / We’re gonna debunk it / It’s gonna last / Who woulda thunk it?” And the title track, which is all about how two losers find answers to their problems in each other, is as true as it is adorable.
An adorable Loudon Wainwright III record? Well, it wouldn’t be the first. But here it’s done with such style and panache—and clear-eyed realism—that the songs stay with you long after they theoretically should. This is kind of a staggering achievement up in here.