The music of Loudon Wainwright has always tended to straddle the line between humor and pathos. In his best works, he manages to perfectly combine the two to create something compelling, highly personal and yet instantly relatable. 2001’s The Last Man On Earth felt like a raw emotional nerve as Wainwright explored themes of parental loss, loneliness and the general discomfort that comes with the aging process. While by no means the first time he had explored such thematic territory, it certainly proved to be some of his most poignant work.
That same year saw the debut of Undeclared, a situational comedy from Judd Apatow on the Fox network in which Wainwright played the role of Hal Karp, a recent divorcee who was struggling to find his place both in the world and in his son’s life. By no means Wainwright’s first screen appearances, it marked his first appearance and initiation into the Apatow universe that now seems to dominate contemporary popcorn comedies. Here Wainwright played broad for laughs, mugging constantly and going for the obvious joke when, before, his humor seemed a bit more nuanced (1972’s fluke hit “Dead Skunk” aside).
With his latest release, Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), Wainwright seems to have found contentment in being a part of the Apatow universe and, in so doing, adopted its often broad, observational humor (just check out the cover and title for further evidence). While this may play well with a certain demographic in theaters with the aid of gross-out visuals, it unfortunately doesn’t always translate that well musically when the humor lies squarely in the lyrics and delivery. Wainwright has always been a sharp lyricist, but here he mugs his way through what feels like the musical equivalent of a hacky observational comic still developing his chops.
Opening track “Brand New Dance” comes out of the gates rocking and rolling while Wainwright goes on to chronicle the unpleasantries of advancing age in a manner sure to appeal to and elicit a smile from the Baby Boomer demographic. Unfortunately the somewhat scatological subject matter and laundry list of complaints comes across more as dad humor than a sharply incisive take on the aging process, something that calls for a fairly deft touch in the humor department to avoid coming across as pandering or reaching for the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
“Spaces” follows suit, detailing the woes of searching for that perfect parking space in a big city. While certainly amusing and, with the verse detailing street cleaning day parking requirements, highly relatable to those who have lived through such things, it plays like the musical equivalent of the, “What’s the deal with airline food?” jokes. Broad and fairly lowbrow, it reflects the Apatow influence which, at this point, seems to have more or less fully permeated Wainwright’s creative output.
Fortunately, flashes of his previous work can still be found sporadically on Still Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet). “In A Hurry” returns to the similar sonic and emotionally resonant territory found on Last Man On Earth, providing a laundry list of all the stresses in life and why we’re always in a hurry: a side effect of the modern condition in a go-go-go world that causes us to miss a great deal, putting greater emphasis on getting from point A to point B without giving much thought to the spaces in between. By the third verse, however, it is revealed the song’s narrator is a homeless pan-handler who, like the businessman always in a hurry, always passing him by each morning with little to no acknowledgement, is also simply trying to “make it in this shitty town.”
Elsewhere, “I Knew Your Mother” is a heartbreaking song, especially given Kate McGarrigle’s, Wainwright’s ex-wife, passing in 2010. With daughter Martha providing background vocals, “I Knew Your Mother” is a poignant example of Wainwright at his finest both musically and lyrically, sharing with his daughter how he knew her mother before she was born and how things were prior to the dissolution of their marriage. Eschewing broad strokes in favor of portraits in miniature is certainly Wainwright’s strong suit and it’s nice to see that he’s still capable of turning out simple, understated lines such as “As long as it lasted was how long it could be” or “I loved your mother and that’s why you’re here / I knew her when love was a means and you were the end” alongside the broad absurdities of “Spaces”, “Man & Dog”, and “Harmless”.
Perhaps the biggest misstep on an album uncomfortably loaded with them is “I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas”, a jaunty holiday-themed number that attempts social commentary on gun control in this country. Certainly a hot-button issue and one ripe for commentary, Wainwright’s nastily tongue-in-cheek lyrics miss the mark and feel very much like a comic known primarily for his observational shtick trying to play edgy. Bottom line, it simply doesn’t work and is more cringe-worthy than anything else. While the intent is certainly on-point and attuned to the zeitgeist, the execution falls flat and, given the increasing levels of absurdity in both Wainwright’s lyrics and the instances of gun violence in this country, not something to be made light of, at least not in this manner.
Much like his career, Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) is a somewhat patchy collection of songs new and old: “Harlan County” was written for the producer’s of FX’s Justified, while “The Morgue” was written for Judd Apatow and to have been sung by Wainwright’s sad-sack Hal Karp on Undeclared. Both songs were summarily rejected and, despite some brief shining moments in each, it’s fairly easy to see why. Like the myriad prescription pills “Brand New Dance”‘s narrator is most certainly consuming, Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) is best taken in small, doctor-recommended doses so as to avoid any adverse side effects brought on by the broader, more observational-minded humor on display here.