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Review: Loudon Wainwright III Delivers a Warts and All Autobiography on ‘Years in the Making’

The singer-songwriter’s career-spanning new set shows why there’s never been a confessional sage quite like him.

Loudon Wainwright III

Ross Halfin

As he reminds us album after album, decade after decade, few songwriters have laid out their lives in song as graphically as Loudon Wainwright III. By chronicling his years from post-adolescence to senior citizenry in real time, he’s not only pushed the boundaries of confessional songwriting but allowed those with somewhat more stable lives to live vicariously through his trysts, marriages, divorces, inebriated episodes, quest for success, and bad-dad issues. Pick any point in your life—the arrival of a child, the loss of a parent or two, the amassing of new meds in the bathroom cabinet–and Wainwright will have a song about it. It’s hard to imagine an even deeper dive into his world, but he does that just with this “audiobiography”–two discs of home recordings, low-fi live tapes, album rejects, and other ephemera from an unapologetic narcissist and screwup who still manages to speak direct, universal truths like no one else in his business.

Arranged by topic and rough chronology, Years in the Making starts with “Folk,” where at various points in his life we hear Wainwright singing Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Just as revealingly, he mangles the cringe-worthy folk ballad “I Gave My Love a Cherry,” which devolves into faxed death threats. (It’s the lyrical equivalent of John Belushi smashing Stephen Bishop’s guitar in Animal House.) The grouping of tracks into the section “Rocking Out” almost comically documents the period in the ’70s when the normally one-man-act Wainwright had backing bands and tried to make something akin to commercial pop. A live take of “2 Song Set” now sounds like a glorious-loser country song, and its drunk-at-the-bar “flash in the pan” narrator feels even more pointed in retrospect. (Wainwright’s only hit, “Dead Skunk,” came a few years earlier.) But when he starts a live version of “You Hurt Me Mantra” with an almost uncomfortable parody of a heckler, you can hear why he wasn’t destined for AM radio that often.

As its memorabilia-packed booklet (compete with congratulatory 1973 telegram from Elton John) mordantly announces, the collection is “Fun by and For the Whole Family.” But Wainwright’s right: Come for the novelties or rarities (“Floods of Tears,” a belated on-the-road sequel of sorts to his classic “Motel Blues”), stay for the biting songs about exes, kids, and the way Wainwright has often fumbled his relationships with all of them. Both Suzzy Roche and the late Kate McGarrigle, both mothers of his children, make cameos here, and it’s certainly amusing to hear McGarrigle harmonizing along with an alternate take of his suicide threat, “Unrequited to the Nth Degree,” which presumably was inspired by the end of their marriage.

One minute we hear a home tape of his then very young kids Rufus, Martha and Lucy wishing him a happy 40th birthday and singing his “Animal Song.” But naturally Wainwright follows it with a live tape of “Your Mother & I,” in which he explains his breakup with Roche to their daughter, and “Teenager’s Lament,” in which he’s lacerated by an unnamed child for his inept parenting. The dementedly cheery sing-along “Meet the Wainwrights,” written for a recent family cruise in Alaska that alas was not filmed for a reality series, fills us all in on sundry family members and their fractious relationships with him. Wainwright resurrects Martha’s famously blunt reference to her often wayward father as a “bloody motherfucking asshole” and then chides Rufus for bringing along his trainer and being “richer and more famous” than all of them. Now on to the dinner buffet!

Along the way, Years in the Making rescues a handful of songs that never made it onto his records: the cranky “Rambunctious” (the pens that don’t work at the bank set him off), “Cheatin’” (written for Walk Hard—The Dewey Cox Story but also clearly autobiographical), and a vulnerable, solo take on “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” which first appeared in a more produced rendition on his inspired-by-Knocked-Up set, Strange Weirdos.

Given that he was one of many artists pegged a “New Dylan” at the dawn of his career, it’s appropriate that Wainwright has cobbled together his own Bootleg Series. But Years in the Making isn’t easy listening on any level, down to its muffled fan-recorded tapes (yes, there are LoudHeads) and flotsam of varying audio quality. Though the purposely tacky synthesizers on “I Wanna Be on MTV” skewer the type of sounds heard on that network in the ’80s, the arrangement also obscure some of its acerbic words (“I can never remember the blond guy’s name!”). Newcomers may want to begin with 40 Odd Years, his recent box set, but then, the bumpy audio ride is appropriate for a potholed life.

By the end, Wainwright is still having relationship issues: In 2014’s “It Ain’t Gaza,” he’s telling his partner in drunken-fight aftermath that at least it’s not equivalent to that part of the world, the Ukraine, or cancer. That’s progress–even if, in the very last song, taped last year, he sings himself a 71st birthday song: “I am the birthday king/Today of me I sing!” His needs may come first, but he continues to spin it all into life-saga gold.

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