Wainwright is a uniquely compelling songwriter and an under-regarded singer. Over long career (his first album was released in 1970) he’s not had much in the way of mainstream success but has kept on producing new material and touring – usually as a solo act. I’d been hearing his name for years before I finally got around to taking a listen.
Here Come The Choppers was the first Wainwright album I heard. It’s perhaps not typical in as much as there’s a band (a very good band) on every track and they get some space to stretch out. They’re worth listing by name – Jim Keltner, David Pilch, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. That’s some band. They’re particularly impressive on the opening “My Biggest Fan” and on the surreal title track which relocates a US helicopter attack in down town Los Angeles.
Wainwright turned out to be a pretty smart, witty songwriter. His subject matter is often himself and his own experiences. I often run for cover when artists start splashing their lives all over their records, but Wainwright usually manages to find something more universal within the personal and offers that as a handle to hold on to. It helps that he includes humour amongst the emotions that he bares. This is very evident in that opening track which he based on a real life backstage moment – very large man bursts into the dressing room and announces “I’m you’re biggest fan” – and which he extrapolates into a telling and humorous examination of the relationship between a performer and his fans. He simultaneously takes down himself and the fans (or at least this fan) towards the end of the song
“But the biggest surprise
Aside from his size
Is just how hip he is
When it comes to show biz
There’s a triumvirate, a kind of top three
There’s Bob then there’s Neil then there’s me
Naturally Bob’s number one
And runner up, that’s Mister Young
I’m his third man
But he’s still My Biggest Fan “
Elsewhere he muses on various members of his family (it turns out he does this a lot) and manages to pack a huge amount of detail about Montgomery Alabama and Hank Williams into a song that is ostensibly about (TV personality, author and songwriter) Fred Rogers.
I got a couple more Wainwright albums and was intrigued, but some how the penny didn’t quite drop. Then whilst on holiday on the UK I bought Career Moves and that nudged the coin over the edge.
This is a live set recorded in one night at the famous Bottom Line club in New York. It’s mostly just Wainwright solo, though he has a couple of long-time associates – Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield – join him for a handful of songs. So it’s representative of his live stock-in-trade – one man, a guitar and a big bunch of songs.
I’ve never believed – as long as I’ve believed anything about music – that you need to have a band to pack a punch, and this album is resounding proof of that. I saw Wainwright in concert in London in 2010 and this album underscores the impression that show left on me – that Wainwright is a very effective live performer. The live show relies very much on his lyrics and his delivery – both of which are excellent. And, as previously observed, there’s a full range of emotion. I remember that in that London show he had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with one song about a smashed guitar and an airline jobsworth, and sobbing in their hankies the next with a performance of “Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder” that he he dedicated to the then recently late and his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle.
There’s a couple of things about him that are quite un rock ‘n roll (not that he puts himself in that school). He’s well read and educated and, in fact, a bit of a smart arse and he doesn’t hide it. EG the opening track “Road Ode” with a chorus that had the unread me heading for Google to understand all the references.
“Out on the road, out on the road
You’re Willy Lohman and you’re Tom Joad
Vladimir and Estragon
Kerouac, Genghis Khan”
He’s also self-confessed bourgeoisie
“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 the country club pool”
Wainwright tugs the heartstrings in all sorts of directions, nothing seems to be taboo when it comes to writing a song, and his delivery makes the most of the emotion he builds into his songs.
Particularly good is “Thanksgiving” which uses that most American of festivities to examine the dynamics of families – and to get in a joke.
“I look around and I recognise a sister and a brother
We barely see our parents now we barely see each other
On this auspicious occasion, this special family dinner
If I argue with a loved one then Lord, please let me be the winner”
2008’s Recovery is an intriguing project. He takes a clutch of songs from his early 1970s albums and re-records and re-interprets them.
The mood is often dark and creepy. In this he is aided and abetted (and encouraged) by producer Joe Henry. There’s something spooky about a 60 year old Wainwright revisiting “Motel Blues” in which the narrator tries to persuade a girl of uncertain age to spend the night with him. And the distance of age renders “New Paint” even more poignant. The album climaxes with “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”, the same track that he builds up to on the live album. Interestingly there’s very little difference in the punch between the live solo version and the album recording with fuller backing – which maybe tells us a bit about Wainwright the performer.
Henry also creates a situation that allows Wainwright to function primarily as a singer, allowing his often overlooked vocal talents (notably his marvellous timing) to come to the fore.
So that’s the Wainwright jag I’ve been on. He’s never been a significant commercial proposition, but who cares about sales, right? He was punted as one of several “new Bob Dylans” at the time of his debut. Wainwright was savvy enough to know that he could never be another Dylan and he never tried. But his song writing, whilst very different, is just as worth while exploring – and the heretical truth is that he sustained his form much longer than Dylan did.