Dad to Martha and Rufus, Loudon Wainwright III has always been at his best when writing and singing of stark relationships or paying psychotic attention to minutiae. His songs, at their best, are remindful of Raymond Carver‘s poems and short stories. Compare this 1992 album’s “When I’m at Your House” with Carver’s “Neighbors,” or “So Many Songs” with “Intimacy”; in both cases, former wives provide not only grist for the mill but also serve as unwilling vessels for self-discovery. History, Wainwright’s thirteenth and arguably best album, could be Carver’s Where I’m Calling From set to bass, banjo, violin, and drums.
A case could be made that History was Wainwright’s first truly adult album. He sings and plays with his usual folky economy, only this time around, like John Lennon on Plastic Ono Band, he dispenses with allegory altogether. He comes across as a man whose days are numbered, a sad truth made real, no doubt, by the then recent death of his father. An urgency permeates the album. The only throwaway on History (from a man, thanks to introducing “Dead Skunk” to our popular culture, famous for his throwaways) is the a cappella misstep “Between.” And the hilarious “Talking New Bob Dylan,” which debuted on NPR to commemorate Dylan’s fiftieth birthday, at first seems utterly disposable — but turns out to be a nifty piece of rock criticism/self-appraisal and perhaps the most personal song on the album.
“Hitting You,” wherein Wainwright confesses to spanking young Martha, is complemented by History‘s quiet centerpiece, “A Father and Son.” Singing to an adolescent Rufus, Wainwright recounts his own father and his father’s father, his mom’s mom and dad, his ex-wife’s family, and his own growing up (“Boys grow up to be grown men/And then men change back into boys again”). “We’re having us a teenage middle-age war,” he sings, searching for anything he and his son might have in common. All he can come up with is, “I don’t wanna die, and you wanna live,” which isn’t much different than Carver’s words to his own son years before:
We all do better in the future.