Loudon Wainwright III, like his good friend and sometime producer/accompanist Richard Thompson, is a songwriter who has only gotten better as he’s aged. His albums from the ’80s, driven by confessional first-person recollections of crumbling marriages and his sometimes pretty shitty fathering of his now more famous offspring Rufus and Martha, are justly compared to John Updike’s short stories, but his new record, Recovery, reaches back to the era right before that peak, reworking previously vocals-and-guitar-only tracks into full-band arrangements. If the intention is to make these songs more palatable for new fans (because, let’s face it, as a singer, Loudon’s no Frank Sinatra, and as a guitarist, he’s no John Fahey), one wonders why he didn’t just compile a greatest-hits collection.
Since Wainwright is such a clever and insightful lyricist, even his weakest material is worth a listen, so Recovery is never unpleasant, but the song selection is unjustifiably uneven. Long-time fans will only gripe about what’s missing, and prospective fans curious about Rufus and Martha’s dad, or those who heard Wainwright’s tunes in Knocked Up or The Squid and the Whale, may wonder what all the fuss is about. Indeed, Recovery almost seems like an anti-best-of: Though its tracks are drawn almost exclusively from Wainwright’s first three albums (with one from his fourth), his only “hit,” Album III’s surprise novelty single “Dead Skunk,” is noticeably absent. That’s not particularly surprising, since Wainwright’s always been self-effacing about the song—his fourth album, Attempted Mustache, is all but a rejection of that brief success—but that was 35 years ago.
There are still a number of well-known cult classics here (the once Johnny Cash-covered “Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” for instance) but not enough (no “Swimming Song,” no “Red Guitar”). Even stranger, most of these tracks have already been reinterpreted again and again for Wainwright’s numerous live albums; even avid collectors like myself don’t need a fifth or sixth version of “Motel Blues.” Since Wainwright has appeared on over a dozen different record labels, licensing difficulties make it nearly impossible to put together the kind of comprehensive box set or hits collection that such a prolific and brilliant songwriter warrants. Still, newcomers are better off with a more representative live set like Career Moves, and devotees may as well stick to the original arrangements from the first few records and wait for the next set of new songs.