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Associated Press/Photo by Shawn Baldwin

Road to Recovery

Music | Loudon Wainwright III takes shots at his own moral failings

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Loudon Wainwright III probably wouldn't describe his modus operandi in theological terms, but he has often seemed to approach the writing and performing of songs as if he were doing penance. Or, to paraphrase Romans 5:20, where Wainwright's sin abounds, unflinchingly honest and comically self-flagellating songs abound much more.

Recovery (Yep Rock) finds the sardonic 61-year-old revisiting 13 songs that originally appeared on his first four albums between 1970 and 1972. His goal was to give the cream of his obscure youthful crop-most of which he initially recorded quickly and with just an acoustic guitar-a second sonic chance.

The decision was smart. The enlistment of producer (and fellow singer-songwriter) Joe Henry, the introduction of complementary instruments, and the transformation of Wainwright into a warmer singer render the shots he takes at his own moral failings less cheap. The sexual-conquest boasting implicit in the "Motel Blues" of 1971, for instance, has been replaced by a world-weariness suggestive of having gone to the adulterous well once (if not dozens of times) too often. Ditto for "The Drinking Song."

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Given the obvious care that went into Recovery, it's tempting to read as much meaning into the songs Wainwright chose not to re-record as into the songs he did. The absence of out-and-out humor (the novelty song "Dead Skunk," his only top-40 hit, from Album III; the lighthearted "Swimming Song," a fan favorite from Attempted Mustache, aka Album IV) accounts for much of the album's reflective tone.

Their absence also makes the inclusion of "Man Who Couldn't Cry," a song already well known due to Johnny Cash's version on American Recordings, particularly conspicuous. Apparently, Wainwright wanted to reclaim the story it tells of a Job-like character incapable of expressing for himself his pain-penitential or otherwise.

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