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Loudon Wainwright III goes back to the basics on 'Lifetime Achievement'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. The singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright is known for his intensely autobiographical writing. So it's not surprising that when he recently turned 75, he decided to make a new album that is about trying, and mostly failing, to age gracefully. It's called "Lifetime Achievement." And rock critic Ken Tucker says the album contains Wainwright's characteristic bluntness and honesty, this time about being older.


LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) I been boatin' and fishin' and mopin' and wishin' and skiin' on water and snow. Walkin' and joggin' and skatin' and tobogganin' and missing you, don't you go? I been wonderin', worryin', slowin' down, hurryin', walkin' the floor. It's true. Yellin' and blinkin' and smokin' and drinkin' and waitin' for the other shoe. I been lyin' and cheatin', nudge and browbeatin', in a jam, on the lam, at sea. Bullyin', bashin' and a bit of talk trashin', givin' it away for free. I'm fussin' and frettin', I'm underpants sweatin'. After all, I'm just a man. Moanin and groanin' and amendin' and atonin' and doin' the best I can (ph).

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Loudon Wainwright is folk music's great confessor, a compulsive chronicler of growing up, falling in love, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, growing old and dying. In the past, Wainwright has been ruthless and unsparing in his honesty about his faults as a husband, father, son and workaholic artist. This time around, having turned 75, there's an autumnal air to his songs, or perhaps I should say, a winter chill. He's more serene than usual, contemplating mortality.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) How old is 75? So old that you're hardly alive. It's a number that's weighty. In five years, you'll be 80, poised way up there on the high diving board. Tell me, how old is 75 (ph)?

TUCKER: Wainwright's first couple of albums released in 1970 and '71 were simple affairs, folk records with the author accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Over the course of his career, at various times, he's plugged in and rocked out, written movie soundtracks and has crooned in front of an orchestra or two. On "Lifetime Achievement," he's back to basics, strumming a guitar, clawing at a banjo. The title song has the easy lope of a country ballad.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I have lived a lifetime, and it's hard to be believed. I'm near the end times, almost up, so what have I achieved? I have done and won some things, awards, I have a few. But the biggest prize, the great surprise, is I managed to win you (ph).

TUCKER: Well before owning up to privilege became the norm, Wainwright had made a career out of being honest about his white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upbringing, freely admitting that male Wasps like him get away with far too much. You certainly can't accuse him of not being aware of how obnoxious the behavior he's described over the years can be. These days, his sins are minor ones, as when he chafes at having to be a happy camper, resenting family vacations, yearning to be left alone.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I need a family vacation. I mean, a family vacation alone. I'm gonna pack up the car, load up the bike and the kayak and leave the [expletive] family at home. A vacation away from the family.

TUCKER: As the years have gone by, Wainwright is increasingly aware that he'll soon encounter the ultimate loneliness. Aside from Al Green and Bob Dylan, I can think of few living performers who have thought about life, death and what comes after with as much rigorousness, resignation and gratitude.


WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I got my old job back pushing this machine. I'm mowing my own lawn now like I did at age 14. Six decades have come and gone. Hey, I'm the old young me. Mowing my grass, I'm my own boss, and I'm doing it for fun and free. Mom showed me how to vacuum when I was just a kid. That was then and this is now. And I'm doing what I did. Made it, Mom, top of the world. I'm channeling James Cagney. Now, it's wall to wall. I'm havin' a ball, doin' it for fun and free. Hey, doin' it for fun and free, that's my new philosophy. It's practically recovery when you do it for fun and free (vocalizing) (ph).

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker reviewed Loudon Wainwright's new album called "Lifetime Achievement." Coming up, we revisit an interview from our archives with actor Jonathan Banks. He began playing the character of Mike Ehrmantraut on "Breaking Bad" in 2009 and just played him again for what may be the last time on this week's finale episode of "Better Call Saul." This is FRESH AIR.


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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