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TERRY GROSS, host:

Loudon Wainwright III has just released an elaborate box-set career retrospective called "40 Odd Years," and the pun in the title is definitely intended. Rock critic Ken Tucker said it presents the singer-songwriter just the way his music does: artful, warts and all.

(Soundbite of song, "Westchester County")

Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) I was raised here in Westchester County. I was taught in the Country Day School. We were richer than most. I don't mean to boast. But I swam in a country club pool.

Well, a father...

KEN TUCKER: The "40 Odd Years" Loudon Wainwright III collects on these four CDs plus a DVD, serves as the autobiography and music that in some ways the singer-songwriter intends but other ways he probably doesn't. Lots of artists get entombed in box-sets. Few of them lend themselves to a retrospective as appropriately as Wainwright, because his entire body of work - with a few "Dead Skunk" exceptions - is about using his life to build his art.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Guitar")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Used to have a red guitar, till I smashed it one drunk night. I smashed it in a classic form, as Peter Townsend might. I threw it in the fireplace. I left it there a while. Kate, she started crying when she saw my sorry smile. Oh, the red guitar was made of wood.

TUCKER: That's "Red Guitar," a 1972 song Wainwright wants you to believe is about his very bad behavior while married to his first wife, the late Kate McGarrigle. It was one the first of Wainwright's cut-to-the-bone autobiographical songs, and typical of his methodology. No matter how much poor judgment or sloppiness he describes, Wainwright casts it in perfect meter, with rhymes as impeccable as the Brooks Brothers shirts he wore early on to distinguish himself from his flannel-shirted, Bob Dylan-derived contemporaries.

A child of East Coast privilege, as he details in the song that opened this review, "Westchester County," Wainwright has spent his career rebelling against his upbringing and mourning every time he fails to live up to his parents' expectations and his cultural inheritance. This process has yielded the best white Anglo-Saxon Protestant chronicle of ruined relationships and broken families this side of John Updike, and I'd put the best of Wainwright's short-story songs up against the "Rabbit Angstrom" novels any day.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Mother & I")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Your mother and I are living apart. I know that seems stupid but we weren't very smart. You'll stay with her. I'll visit you at Christmas, on weekends, in the summer time too.

Your mother and I are not getting along. Somehow, somewhere something went wrong. Everything changes. Time takes a toll. Your folks fell in love. Love's a very deep hole.

TUCKER: Wainwright is not a cult artist by choice. He's tried for a mass audience in all sorts of ways, including acting jobs on TV shows ranging from "MASH" to the 2001 sitcom "Undeclared." The latter, a high-quality TV flop, was created by Judd Apatow - now a movie mogul, who is Wainwright's most powerful show biz fan and the co-producer of this box-set. Apatow, who also cast Wainwright in a small role in "Knocked Up," clearly appreciates the Loudon's artistic strategy of eloquent arrested development.

(Soundbite of song, "Bein' A Dad")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Bein' a dad isn't so bad, except that you gotta feed 'em. You gotta shoe 'em and clothe 'em and try not to loathe 'em. Bug 'em and hug 'em and heed 'em.

Bein' a dad can sure make you mad, man it even can drive you crazy. It's as hard as it looks. You gotta read them dumb books. And you end up despising Walt Disney.

TUCKER: By now, an undercurrent of bitterness has occasionally seeped into the cracks of Wainwright's music. You can hear it annunciated in the terrific 1993 Dutch television documentary on this collection's DVD. It's titled after one of Loudon's songs: "One Man Guy." At one point, Wainwright flashes a wide, sour smile and says to the camera: The world is a terrible place; haven't you noticed? The media success of his son, Rufus, about whom the father has written songs since the young man was a baby, can be a sore point, although Rufus seems headed toward a less prolific, separate-but-equal cult status. As Loudon settles into his 60s, there's no reason to believe that he can not turn such feelings and senior citizenship into a whole new area of exploration.

This collection "40 Odd Years" proves Wainwright the least limited of cult artists, and the least diminished over time. There are more chapters in song to be written illustrating the power of a highly disciplined artist continuing his life's work - an ongoing portrait of a genial screw-up, honest not to a fault, but to a triumph.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the Loudon Wainwright's new collection "40 Odd Years."

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