It’s a well-known fact baby boomers are getting older. The first wave is on Medicare, getting Social Security benefits, and such; but this generation was the first to rock and roll. Sure the spirit is willing, but the flesh? Well, that’s another story. Loudon Wainwright III, born in 1946, understands. He starts his latest record, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet) with a rockabilly beat right out of the ’50s. He tells you about a “Brand New Dance” that’s sweeping the nation. The craze is just getting out of bed, standing up, and confronting death. The pleasures of life now consist of having others give up their bus seats for you and spending time in the toilet.
Sure Wainwright’s being funny, but three things make him more than just a comic: First, he’s an excellent musician with a crack band that includes the guitarist David Mansfield, banjoist Tony Trischka, saxophonist Steve Elson, drummer Sammy Merendino, and bassist Tim Luntzel. They play everything from blues to rock to bluegrass to Klezmer to country with power and style. The 14 songs here cover a variety of genres, and Wainwright and company are in the groove every time.
Second, while the songs range in topic from parking in New York City to dealing with depression, even when Wainwright engages in low banter, he has serious points to make. So when he sings about a panhandler sympathizing with the plight of a businessman on “In a Hurry”, Wainwright transforms the spiel for a dollar into insight by revealing what is gained by giving to others. Who really benefits most when one donates to a needy individual cannot be addressed simply. Wainwright understands how to structure a song so that what comes before pays off at the end of the song. His analysis of human behavior reveals discerning perceptions on topics as varied as psychological depression (“Depression Blues”), the environment (“God and Nature”), and staying together even when love may have run out (“Looking at the Calendar”).
Relatedly, Wainwright knows how to pen a zippy line that makes one think that he’s really nailed the topic. He croons “I knew your mother / when love was the means / and you were the end” with his daughter Martha (and Aoife O’Donovan) singing background vocals. It’s a beautiful sentiment, the truth of which is evident. One can find at least one true zinger on every track whose perception just kills, and most cuts have several such lines that build upon each other for effect.
And lastly, Wainwright knows how to deliver the lyrics for maximum effect. It’s easy to overlook just what a good singer Wainwright is because his method is so conversational. Sometimes he’s talk his way through a song, such as on “Harlan County USA”, where it is now easier to buy meth than a beer. But on the other songs Wainwright has a way with the turning the dialogue into melody that he can twist for dramatic and comedic purposes, often at the same time such as on the farce “I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas” a seemingly charming anti-gun control lilt whose aim is obviously the opposite of what he promotes.
This is album 26 for Wainwright. The first ones earned comparisons to Bob Dylan because of their shared felicity with language. While Dylan may have become the Jokerman, Wainwright is seriously funny. He’s earned his status as one of America’s finest singer songwriters through a series of marvelous albums. This disc shows he’s still at the top of his game.