Loudon Wainwright III-Album II

September 21, 2008

Loudon Wainwright III

Album II (Atlantic 1970)


To my discredit, I never gave Loudon Wainwright the time of day due to encounters with his 90s albums. It was only when I started listening to his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle as well as his son Rufus that I decided to take a stab at his earliest efforts. Boy, did I feel like an ass when I heard some of the most sarcastic, humorous and downright moving folk of the early 70s. His lyrics display a wit and eloquence that stands out amidst the earnestness and goodwill of his contemporaries. There was venom in his words, but he was never above a roll in depression and regret.

Obviously, this is his second album and it is my favorite because it is the best example of his caustic wit and smarmy worldview. There isn’t much optimism to be found here. This is cynical music, but the moments of sunlight are truly moving because they are so reluctant and conflicted.

The highlight is “Motel Blues” because it is a critique of the emptiness of groupies and a musician’s life on the road. On the other hand, there is a romanticism of the hedonistic void where all women are notches on bedposts. What makes it rise above base sentiments is the tender delivery and description of a lonely hotel room and the way he makes this seduction sound so tragic. Both parties are so lost and devoid of emotion, but his offers of breakfast and insistence that she is perceived as his wife instead of a one night stand transform it into something despicable and sweet. It is a desperate plea for some sort of familial relationship when it the reality is that is a cheap encounter.

The image of the absent lover or husband presents itself again in “Cook That Dinner, Dora” where he bows before his partner’s domestic abilities and gives praise to the reassurances to be found in the traditions of a family dinner. Again, there is a weird misogyny afoot as he will only love her if she can make dinner happen like it exists in his mind. On the other hand, he presents the action of cooking dinner as an act of creativity that makes him love her even more. As someone who constantly cooks and clips recipes like a hairier Betty Crocker, it is endearing to me, but somewhat unsettling in its reliance on domesticity for reassurance.

“Be Careful, There’s a baby In the House” refers to the arrival of his son Rufus. Again, there is a fork in the road where one side of Loudon pays tribute to the joys of fatherhood while the other side explains fatherhood as “an IOU where you cannot expect a good deal” and that a father must always be on close watch about his very thoughts. Even the way he sings the chorus is sort of sarcastic as if all coochie-coos and babytalk makes his very skin crawl. It seems as if he is unhappy with the intrusion of a child and wishes for the freedoms expressed in “Motel Blues.” The rub is that the lifestyle pursued in “Motel Blues” leaves him depressed and lost.

However, this is why I love this album so much. He is painfully honest about his uncertainty about responsibility, family and the validity of love while expressing a desire for all three. He is an utter mess, but one who expresses his inner demons and joys in such a manner that makes him an innately likeable character despite his darkest thoughts and actions.