To find the comedy in tragedy is the mark of a mature talent. Loudon Wainwright III has it in spades. When you marry a gift for a sharp turn of phrase to a wry self-deprecation as Wainwright does, the results are gratifyingly life affirming. There is nothing more boring than the unremitting bleakness of teenage navel-gazing; the best melancholy music is wistful, nostalgic, or darkly comic. WIII blends all three into his disarming folk music.
So Damn Happy is a live album, collating material recorded at gigs in January 2002. Normally, live albums are a pain in the arse. You just get badly produced, mistake-ridden shadows of the songs you know and love, without any of the benefits of actually going to a gig. It’s a bit like trying to enjoy the party at the place next door. But some artists are born to perform, and Wainwright is one of them. Simplicity is the key, and Wainwright’s folk formula dovetails with this musical understatement well. He involves the audience and their enthusiasm is infectious. Of course it helps when you can call on Van Dyke Parks (piano), Richard Thompson (guitar), and David Mansfield (violin/fiddle/guitar) to back you up. Stewart Lerman is once again on hand with the production, having worked on 2001’s Last Man on Earth. Wainwright’s daughter also appears, singing a duet with her old man on “You Never Phone”. She has a tremendous voice and it’s good to see the family talents are spread thick. I discovered Loudon after listening to his son Rufus’s luscious 2001 album Poses. On it he covers Loudon’s “One Man Guy”; it is the best thing on that record.
“One Man Guy” does not feature here, but there are some Wainwright classics. Most of the songs performed are taken from his ’90s work, although “The Home Stretch” and “Westchester County” date from further back. The latter is a great piece of wry autobiography, and a showcase for Wainwright’s winning gift for poking fun at himself — in this case his privileged upbringing. Autobiography figures prominently in many of the songs, and it is always fused with rich insight, especially in “The Picture”. He does biography too, with a wonderful paean to psychotic ice-skater Tonya Harding (“Tonya’s Twirls”). Meanwhile, “Heaven” and “The Shit Song” emerge gleaming from the murky territory between novelty song and stand-up comedy, and are laugh-out-loud crowd pleasers. And they are not throwaway songs either, just damn funny. But at his best, he is a chronicler of male failure (and a glorious failure it can be), and from here he derives both sadness and humour. “4×10” and “So Damn Happy” are defining documents of male break-up psychology.
There is perhaps just one dud, the ill-advised Freudian a cappella of “Between”. But it is the only one. Bob Dylan’s influence is writ-large, but Wainwright knows his limits. His aims are simple; to entertain and amuse. So Damn Happy is not just a title; it’s a manifesto.
Wainwright has released something like 20 albums; a daunting prospect for anyone trying to get into him. That’s why an album like So Damn Happy is an ideal beginning. Not only do you get a privileged overview of his recent work, but you get to see him in his element, gaining an understanding of what really drives him as a songwriter/performer. It’s uplifting, funny, and profound and, best of all, shows a tenacious reluctance to leave my CD player.
As an addendum, it might be worth mentioning his acting. Wainwright has apparently been appearing in numerous American sitcoms that I haven’t seen. Indeed, there is a film appearance in the offing too. However, the only show I’ve seen him in is the frankly satanic Ally McBeal, and that was even after that preposterous show had well and truly jumped the shark. It is no great slight on the man though; I’m surprised he can deliver his lines with his tongue wedged so firmly in his cheek