Although it’s been 40 years since he recorded “Dead Skunk,” the novelty-music cloud still hangs heavy over Loudon Wainwright III. But the humor on Older Than My Old Man now is of the gallows variety, as Wainwright faces mortality with a fatalistic grin.
Inspired by Wainwright’s 64th birthday — one more than his father, a columnist for Life magazine, enjoyed — Older surveys the arc of the singer-songwriter’s life: the wreckage of the past, the chaotic jumble of the present, and the inevitable end of the line. Given that Wainwright’s on his third marriage and he’s publicly, and musically, feuded with his singing offspring Rufus and Martha, the album is suffused with melancholy and regret, but it’s also tinged with hope, and the morbid assurance that, no matter how bad things get, they’ll all be over soon. Even Wainwright’s late first wife, Kate McGarrigle, turns up in spirit, via a version of “Over the Hill,” the only song the two wrote together.
Wainwright invites a slew of friends and family to his premature wake, including “musical father figure” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who shares lead vocals on “Double Lifetime,” and his onetime Ally McBeal love interest Dame Edna Everage (nÃ©e Barry Humphries), who adds a burlesque touch to the post-Cialis reminiscence “I Remember Sex.” When the guests arrive en masse, as on the leadoff “The Here & the Now,” the songs sink beneath the weight of over-orchestration; inviting his four children and two ex-wives (Suzzy Roche and Ritamarie Kelly) to share backing vocals might be a conceptual coup, but especially when paired with John Scofield’s jazz noodling, it feels like a family reunion run amok.
Older‘s simplest songs are invariably its most poignant. “In C,” named for a piano’s default key, uses Wainwright’s fumble-fingered playing as a metaphor for life’s rough spots. “The Days That We Die,” which opens with a spoken-word passage written by Wainwright’s late father, proceeds to a delicate ballad of paternal regret whose poignancy doubles when Rufus’s haunting voice floats in midway through. The bad blood between them, born of Wainwright’s slipshod parenting and Rufus’s runaway success, has become what bonds them as well as what keeps them apart. “I’ll never win, neither will you,” Rufus sings, “so what in this world are we gonna do?”
Like life itself, Older Than My Old Man Now has its bumpy passages. Jokey numbers like “My Meds” don’t bear repeat listening, and the spoken intros lose their force over the long haul. But without a few pulled punches and missteps, the album might be almost too powerful to bear.