Like Richard Thompson, who gave it his guest shot on 1983's ironically titled Fame and Wealth, Loudon Wainwright III is a storyteller who recounts his tales to a small, fanatical audience; theirs is the cult of the literate and the twisted, the kind of folks who laugh when they hear the line, "You told me that I came too soon but it was you who came too late," not just because they get it but because they've been there. Wainwright's the smartass with a heart, the wise guy who smirks and winks his way through a lyric like "Rufus is a tit man" then turns around and unloads a family heartbreaker like "The Picture." He was one of the so-called New Dylans back in the late '60s and early '70s, but Wainwright deserved better: He's aged more gracefully than Dylan, ditching the cheap-shot sarcasm and goofy sentimentalism in exchange for the sharp-eyed wit and poignancy that comes with growing up, having kids, losing parents, and generally finding you own way. Dylan just grew up...and, sometimes, away.
Hence the title of Wainwright's new record, Grown Man, which kicks off with the sound of a middle-aged man singing in the shower and pondering his own mortality: He knows he'll live to be at least 48 ("though it's not 14") and that the "thinning gray hair is a sign of wisdom"--as is the paunch in the gut, the sagging skin around the neck, and the teeth that will soon need to be replaced by dentures. Grown Man is the partner piece to 1992's History, on which Wainwright wrote about his father (famous Life magazine writer and editor), sang to his son and sister, and revealed the most intimate details of a life scarred by divorce and separation from children.
Wainwright, much like Richard Thompson, fuses his life with his work to such an extent they're inseparable; it's the old saw about universalizing the intensely personal, and then laughing about the things that hurt us the most. That's why the new "Father Daughter Dialogue" is so painful to listen to ("You sing of a father and son/When all you do from him is run") and yet so endearing at the same time ("If the songs seem slightly pat/I know life's messier than that"), even if he does sell it short with a punch line, "The guy singing the songs ain't me." Sure, pal.
Of course, that hasn't ever stopped Wainwright from accruing something of a wrongheaded reputation as a novelty songwriter, Jonathan Richman all grown up and settled down. "I Wish I Was a Lesbian" is an easy joke, the kind of sit-down comedy routine that dates quicker than a George Carlin bit: He'd sleep with k.d. lang and neglect Mel Gibson, throw away the diaphragm, and stop caring how well someone was hung. He sings it in the persona of a woman, but he's a man! Hence, the (yawn) joke. Don't hold it against him, even if you're straight.
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Loudon Wainwright III performs March 1 at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.