NEW YORK — Loudon Wainwright III points out that the first line of the first song of his debut album, released when he was 23, is about aging: “In Delaware when I was young”.
So it’s no exaggeration that the folksinger’s first album of new material in eight years, “Lifetime Achievement,” is loosely based on his 75th birthday. It goes on sale Friday.
The new song “How Old is 75?”, where he sings “in five years I’ll be 80. I’ll hear the fat lady,” is one of Wainwright’s blends of humor and poignant observation. Three quarters of a century is a big milestone, not just because it’s a big number, but because he’s now outlived his father and mother.
“The aging stuff has always been on all my records,” he said. “But actually, it really applies to me now.”
Over the course of 15 songs, Wainwright sings snippets of his life scattered across various locations, strolling through an old town of lovers, imagining himself at the gates of hell and the prospect of a dog caught in the middle of a divorce.
The title cut narrator realizes that all of life’s momentary accomplishments mean nothing next to love — whether from a partner or an audience, depending on your interpretation.
And the family. Always with family.
Anyone who has listened to the man Rolling Stone called “the poet laureate of family dysfunction” knows the competition with his father, his divorces from singers Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, the damage wrought by the distant upbringing of his son Rufus and his daughter Lucy, both accomplished artists.
Wainwright jokes about “a few tense Thanksgiving dinners,” but is endlessly drawn to his own life for the material, believing there will always be listeners who can relate.
“How could I not write about this?” he said. “What better subject than that?” I could write about imagining what it’s like to ride the rails or pick cotton. I’m just writing what happened to me. It started at the very beginning; I wrote my first song about going to boarding school in Delaware.
“Lifetime Achievement” is basically Wainwright and his guitar – or banjo on “How Old is 75?” — with ornaments added later. He usually performs alone, so starting alone is the best approach for him in the studio.
Wainwright “was something of an old man even when he was young, so he approaches the subject of aging with grace and insight,” music critic Stephen Deusner wrote in a review of the album for Uncut.
The singer grew up in the New York suburb of Westchester County and now lives on the east end of Long Island. He jokes about being part of an interview with “maintenance visits” to doctors on a trip to town.
He remembers precisely what made him want to be an interpreter. At age 7, he sang a song to his mother and sister, bathed in their adoration, and knew he wanted that feeling back.
Throughout his career, Wainwright was able to switch between humor and seriousness in a way that most songwriters don’t.
The new “Fam Vac” is hilarious: the narrator wants a vacation with his family, not with him. At the same time, the way he sang about feeling adrift after his mother’s death in 2001’s “Homeless” is chilling in its bare emotion.
“I consider myself a switch hitter,” he said. “I can do funny, and I can do really depressing and depressing. I joke about it now, but I can do very serious songs. I decided I could do both and I did both.
This can be a difficult line to follow. When the novelty song “Dead Skunk” became his first hit in the early 1970s—his only hit, really—it briefly became a trap.
His record company was unenthusiastic when Wainwright suggested his upbeat “The Swimming Song” as a new single; they wanted another silly animal song. The Last Laugh: 50 years later, “The Swimming Song” has over 17 million streams on Spotify; “Dead Skunk” is at 3.5 million.
Wainwright’s 76th birthday approaches in a few weeks, just as he leaves for his first post-pandemic tour. He begins in England, where he usually attracts a wider audience than at home.
“I’m so thrilled when young people come up to me and say ‘my mum loved your records’ or ‘my grandfather loved your records’,” he said. “And then they say, ‘but I like your records too.’ This is of course the most exciting thing. Then I feel like I’m 22 years old.
Wainwright never thought he would be making music for so long. Although getting out on the road is much more difficult and Wainwright may see a deadline coming on this part of his career, he expects to write songs as long as the inspiration hits him.
“When you start out in show business, or any business…you have fantasies about how big it’s going to get, how much fame you’re going to get, how much money you’re going to make,” he said. declared. “I had it all. I was hoping I would make a little more money than what I have, but looking back it’s been great. I have to do what I wanted to do.