TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Few musicians have written such frankly autobiographical songs as Loudon Wainwright III. Over the past four decades he's chronicled his relationships with his ex-wife, the late Kate McGarrigle, and his children, including the singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright. He's also written about his fraught relationship with his father, but never more explicitly than on Wainwright's new album, "Older Than My Old Man Now." Music critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN C")
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Here's another song in C. When I play piano, it's my key. If I was playing my guitar I'd probably be in G, the chances are.
KEN TUCKER: As Loudon Wainwright says on that new song, he likes to sing about quote/unquote "my favorite protagonist, me." Over the years, he's written about being a husband, a father and a son; an adulterer, a lover, a first-class guilt-tripper, a defensive SOB who'll take the blame but not without getting his witty licks in first. On his early records, the songs were superb and self-centered.
In recent years, they've been frequently just as superb, but more outwardly directed. Wainwright's songs about the death of his mother were a kind of breakthrough for him, and he continues that work here, but now about his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., who died in 1988 at age 63. The 65-year-old singer-songwriter uses this as a jumping-off point for his new collection.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLDER THAN MY OLD MAN")
WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Older than my old man now. He died at 63. That's way too young. Now you've got to feed me, now you've got to need me and I feel like a faithless son. Sixty-four is awful old. You know what can happen next. Hell, I'm older than my old man ever was and I'm trying to keep it in context.
TUCKER: Wainwright prefaces that title song by reading a passage from his father's writing about his own aging. Loudon's father was a writer and editor for Life magazine, and extremely articulate about - no surprise, I suppose - his fraught relationship with his father, Loudon's grandfather, and his difficult relationship with his children, including our Loudon.
The song I just played also carries a final sting, as Loudon says, quote, "Not only older than my old man ever was, but I'm guilty I've outlived my ex." His ex-wife, of course, is Kate McGarrigle, of the great team of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who died two years ago.
Loudon performs here a song called "Over the Hill," which in the liner notes he says is the only song he ever wrote with Kate, in 1975. It is, with remarkable aptness, a song about aging.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THE HILL")
WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Once you were a young man. Now you are old. You're over the hill. You can't cross the palm of time's hand with silver and gold to make him stand still.
TUCKER: But all is not ruefulness and woe, of course. There's a funny song about the multitude of medications that a 60-something man might have to take. There's a lovely song called "Double Lifetime," in which Wainwright trades verses with one of his folk heroes, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. And there's this perfectly ridiculous duet Loudon performs with the comedian Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage, called "I Remember Sex."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER SEX")
DAME EDNA EVERAGE: What are you thinking, Loudon? You've got a far away look in your eyes.
WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I remember sex. That thing we used to do. Where you'd lay down and usually I'd lie on top of you.
EVERAGE: (Singing) Sometimes I'd lie on top of you. We tried that out a bit. But it didn't work as well.
WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I guess something just didn't fit.
EVERAGE: (Singing) I remember sex.
TUCKER: "Older Than My Old Man Now" is an uneven album, at times overproduced. Oddly, the slickest and most forgettable song is the one overloaded with family: Called "The Here and the Now," it features all four of his children, Rufus, Martha, Lucy, and Lexie, and as Loudon puts it in the credits, two out of the three moms, Suzzy Roche and Ritamarie Kelly.
But while Loudon may be a senior citizen, his witty self-pity, his ringing rancorousness, his apologies phrased as arguments, remain rigorous and sometimes gloriously obstinate. Or as he puts it in one song here: I'm not quite high on life, just slightly dead.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Loudon Wainwright's new album "Older Than My Old Man Now." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.