Lots of artists get entombed in box-set career retrospectives. Few lend themselves to the process as appropriately as Loudon Wainwright III does on 40 Odd Years, because his entire body of work — with a few exceptions like "Dead Skunk" — is about using his life to build his art.
"Red Guitar" is a 1972 song Wainwright wants you to believe is about his very bad behavior while married to his first wife, the late Kate McGarrigle. It was among the first of Wainwright's cut-to-the-bone autobiographical songs, and typical of his superb methodology. No matter how much poor judgment or sloppiness he describes, Wainwright casts it in perfect meter, with rhymes as impeccable as the Brooks Brothers shirts he wore early on to distinguish himself from his flannel-shirted, Bob Dylan-derived contemporaries. A child of East Coast privilege, as he details in "Westchester County," Wainwright has spent his career rebelling against his upbringing and mourning every time he fails to live up to his parents' expectations and his cultural inheritance. This process has yielded the best WASP chronicle of ruined relationships and broken families this side of John Updike, and I'd put the best of Wainwright's short-story songs up against the Rabbitt Angstrom novels any day.
Wainwright is not a cult artist by choice. He's tried for a mass audience in all sorts of ways, including acting jobs on TV shows ranging from M*A*S*H to the 2001 sitcom Undeclared. The latter, a high-quality TV flop, was created by Judd Apatow — now a movie mogul, he's Wainwright's most powerful show-business fan and the co-producer of this box set. Apatow, who also cast Wainwright in a small role in Knocked Up, clearly appreciates the singer's artistic strategy of eloquent arrested development.
An undercurrent of bitterness occasionally seeps into the cracks of Wainwright's music. You can hear it enunciated in the terrific 1993 Dutch television documentary on this collection's DVD titled after one of Wainwright's songs: "One Man Guy." At one point, he flashes a wide, sour smile as he carries his guitar to another one-man gig and says to the camera, "The world is a terrible place; haven't you noticed?" The media success of his son, Rufus, about whom the father has written songs since the young man was a baby, can be a sore point, although Rufus seems headed toward a less prolific, separate-but-equal cult status. As Loudon settles into his 60s, there's no reason to believe that he can't turn such feelings and senior citizenship into a whole new area of exploration.
The collection 40 Odd Years proves Wainwright to be the least limited of cult artists, and the least diminished over time. There are more chapters in song to be written illustrating the power of a highly disciplined artist continuing his life's work: an ongoing portrait of a genial screw-up, honest not to a fault, but to a triumph. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.