LOUDON Wainwright isn’t that old, but he’s old enough, at 65, to be feeling it. The title of his new album sums up what you need to know about where his head is at. His lyrics, as straightforward yet acute as ever, develop his theme with disarming honesty. “Just cause you survive, don’t mean you feel alive” is his wry response to living longer than past generations.
Wainwright has always used his family as fodder (although, with hindsight, Rufus is a Tit Man wasn’t entirely on the money). His most famous offspring, Rufus and Martha, have enjoyed some quid pro quo with, respectively, the caustic yet heartbreaking Dinner At Eight and the self-explanatory Bloody Motherf***ing Asshole. But, as Wainwright Sr contends in tender pavement café chanson All In The Family, “what family is not insane?”
Now that he is raging against the dying of the light (which doesn’t really seem to be dying), the errant patriarch gathers his family – all four kids and his two surviving spouses – around him for The Here & The Now, an unsentimental potted life story in song: “in the 70s I made it big, skunk time, fame and wealth – you dig? I took a wife, we had some kids, screwed that up and went on the skids.” If only all autobiographies could be that pithy.
He takes a more sober approach on In C, partly to comment on the more serious songs he writes at the piano, partly to lament the break-up of his family and warn his kids not to repeat his mistakes but also to rationalise that “if families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art”.
Mortality weighs heavily on his mind even in the album’s lighter moments. Wainwright has always used wit as a tool rather than a shield when it comes to handling painful subjects. On Somebody Else, he deals with the way old folks become increasingly inured to the death of their peers, while Double Lifetime, a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, asks for more time to perfect the game of life. The jolly music hall number My Meds lists his burgeoning daily intake of age-related pills and potions, while I Remember Sex is a dewy-eyed reminiscence with, of all collaborators, Dame Edna Everage.
It turns out that this ageing business has been on his mind for some time. One of the most poignant moments on the album is a new version of Over The Hill, the one song he wrote with his late wife Kate McGarrigle (for his 1975 album Unrequited), sung on this occasion with daughter Martha.
Like father, like son? In one respect at least: Rufus is also feeling his age on the title track of his new album, observing with soulful languor and a hint of envy the young carefree buck he used to be “wearing something from God knows where, just having a ball”.
Out Of The Game is at least his third stated attempt to write a big hit album. This time he has recruited producer Mark Ronson for the job, who brings along The Dap-Kings to lend some classy horn action here and there but mainly eschews the maximalist approach of his own albums. His involvement can be discerned most clearly on Perfect Man, a diary-like rumination which wears its funk lightly, and Bitter Tears with its chiming synth arpeggios and insistent rhythm. But it’s not like Wainwright needs much help in gussying up an arrangement if that is how he wants to play it. Jericho is a big production but nothing he hasn’t achieved before by souping up his natural melodic flow with lush strings and gospelly backing vocals.
Rashida is pure Wainwright sass, a pounding piano epic with fabulously over-the-top falsetto backing vocals, while he musters his most exquisite plaintive delivery for the old-time sashay of Respectable and Song Of You. This is Rufus Wainwright not exactly in the middle of the road, but in the middle of his particular road.
A Rufus album is really all about Rufus, but family exerts itself here too, with Wainwright citing the death of his mother and the birth of his daughter Viva as the two most important influences on the songwriting for this album.
The lovely, rippling Montauk is an expectant epistle to his daughter, looking forward to the days when she will join him and his partner at their holiday home, “and see your dad wearing a kimono, and see your other dad pruning roses”.
But Wainwright’s final thought is with his mother. Candles is a tremulous, devotional tribute to McGarrigle, coloured by restrained organ, the subtle peep of accordion, the occasional martial snare roll and the swoon of backing vocals before a big, bizarre bagpipe climax.
Loudon Wainwright: Older Than My Old Man Now Proper, £12.99
Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game