Strange as it may seem to the modern music fan, but there was a time when there was only one warbling Wainwright. Long before Rufus Wainwright composed operas and Martha Wainwright strummed her guitar, there was their father, Loudon Wainwright III with album after album of autobiographical songs that were often rather too honest.
Older Than My Old Man Now is Wainwright’s 21st studio album, and feels very like a swansong. It’s the sound of a 65-year-man looking back over his life, warts and all, and in a similar way to that of Leonard Cohen in recent years, repositioning himself as an elder statesman figure.
The Wainwrights have never been afraid of discussing their family issues in public (Loudon himself was the target of Rufus’ Dinner At Eight and Martha’s Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole) and this album doesn’t break that cycle. The opening two tracks deal with Wainwright’s life, with The Here & The Now being underscored by some particularly jazzy guitar, and the heartbreaking In C detailing the break-up of his family.
It’s on these opening tracks that Wainwright’s gift for a confessional lyric is well displayed. The Here & The Now is self-described as “the story of my swinging life in a three and a half minute song” and it doesn’t disappoint: “I took a wife, had some kids, screwed that up and went on the skids”. The fact that all of the Wainwright children are on backing vocals only adds to the mordant humour of it all.
Other subjects covered include failing health on My Meds, having old friends die on Somebody Else, and most poignantly, Over The Hill, an early song co-written with his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle who died in 2010 (who also receives a heart-rendering mention on the title track, when Wainwright wryly observes that “I’m guilty I’ve outlived my ex”). It may sound like a sombre and depressing listen, but the opposite is true thanks to Wainwright’s celebrated sense of humour – Someone Else, for example, bluntly states “somebody else I knew just died….I can’t say I cried, when I heard the sad news about him I thought ‘he’s off the hook’”.
There’s plenty of guest stars here as well – from the expected (Rufus, Martha and Lucy Roche Wainwright all contribute backing vocals and perform duets with their father) to the bizarre – none other than Dame Edna Everage guests on I Remember Sex. The Dame Edna spot is probably the lowlight of the album sadly: as wryly funny as the track is, Barry Humphries’ presence just relegates it to the status of novelty song.
Although most focus here will be on the self-laceratingly honest lyrics, there’s a wide variety of musical styles on display: ragtag piano on My Meds, some harmonica-driven blues on Ghost Blues and a beautiful instrumental passage simply entitled Interlude. If you’d pigeon-holed Wainwright as a folkie, you could well be in for a surprise on this album.
At 15 tracks, it’s possibly a bit too long – but this is a man who’s lived one hell of a life and has a lot of tales to tell. Indeed, it’s a fair shout that this could well be the most entertaining autobiography you’ll listen to all year.