Whether being hailed as the “new Bob Dylan” (early in his career) or better known (now) as the father of Rufus Wainwright, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III has always made an impression on any and all who had the good fortune to encounter his idiosyncratic work — more than 30 years of heartfelt, witty and affecting music. He managed a Top 40 novelty hit, “Dead Skunk”, in 1973, dabbled in rock in the late 1970s, moved to England in 1985 to work with Richard Thompson and spent the 1990s cementing his excellent reputation as an obscure artist of the top drawer.
Wainwright’s first album of the new millennium finds him in remarkable form, inspired unfortunately by the death of his mother in 1997. As you can imagine, it was a difficult time for Wainwright and its relation to the songs in Last Man on Earth are detailed in the liner notes: “Twice a week I took the train into the city to see my shrink. I told him I didn’t think I’d be able to write songs anymore. He told me not to worry, always good advice for pitching slumps and bouts of impotence. Back up in northern Westchester I went swimming in and walking around Lake Waccabuc, waters I consider sacred and medicinal. Then I began to write again”.
Keeping arrangements to a bare minimum, often limited to just guitar and voice, the primary focus of Wainwright’s music is his lyrics, many of which on this album reflect the difficult circumstances detailed earlier.
“I’m Not Gonna Cry” is not direct in its message with a bluegrass tone that belies its melancholy, barely. Wainwright can even be witty: “I must have cried a million tears / At least ninety-six / I cried a river / And an ocean just for kicks.” “Living Alone” is chillingly close to the bone with lines like “The end is at hand now / And you have the means / A roll of toilet paper / And the right magazines.” Quite. Poignancy ensues when one encounters “Graveyard” as Wainwright narrates, “My father’s in the graveyard / My dear mother too / I visit them with flowers / What else can I do? / I go to the graveyard / To remember them / I’m an orphan in the graveyard / And I’ll be back again.”
However, the song that touches home the most is Wainwright’s song to his late father, the autobiographical “Surviving Twin” where Wainwright exorcises the past, recounting his battles with his father for his mother’s affections, his attempts to use his fame against his father and how despite the difficulties in their relationship, he would always be his father’s son. Wainwright’s recognition of the paternal tie is expressed in “And the beard is a reminder / I’m a living part of him / Although my father’s dead and gone / I’m his surviving twin.”
Wainwright has certainly aged well, much better than say Mick Jagger, and these wonderfully personal songs are indeed appropriate for an artist in his mid-fifties. An album recommended for all ages essential for an appreciation of life in all its aspects.