Loudon Wainwright III
Last Man on Earth
The Music Box's #8 album for 2001
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 2001, Volume 8, #12
Written by John Metzger
Most folks know Loudon Wainwright from his early '70s novelty hit Dead Skunk, but this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of his talent. Throughout his career, Wainwright has seamlessly juxtaposed painful self-exploration with biting humor, conveying the plight of human experience through his own personally raw emotions. It was, after all, years ago when he turned to the topic of middle age, weaving his tales of love, hate, and familial relationships like no one else.
Wainwright's latest album Last Man on Earth found its roots in 1997 with the death of his mother (as well as the demise of a romantic relationship), after which he succumbed to an unfortunate bout of writer's block. He resided in his mother's cottage for the next eighteen months, gradually rediscovering his muse. Consequently, the album finds Wainwright wrestling with his emotions in the aftermath of her death.
Granted, most albums about loss tend towards being grave, dark, and solitary affairs. However, Wainwright surrounds his lyrics with music that is subtly buoyant and uplifting, not to mention that at his best, he has a unique way of making his songs simultaneously heartbreaking and amusing. For example, White Winos paints fond remembrances of times with his mother, underneath which lies the truth in just how much he loved, and now misses, her. Likewise, he resurrects his late father in Surviving Twin, recalling their tumultuous relationship with equal parts acrimony and affection.
Indeed, there is an air of loneliness that pervades Last Man on Earth. It's even buried deep within the humorous title track, which rants against the American technological society of the New Millennium. Here, amid his disgust with stocks, bonds, SUVs, cell phones, politics, web sites, and the media, he states: "Existence is no picnic/As statistics all have shown/We learn to live together/And then we die alone." Within the constraints of the song, Wainwright seems to comment on American society. But taken within the grander scheme of his album, Last Man on Earth points towards his own solitude. After having his kids grow up and move out, his lover leave, and his parents die, there's no one left but him.
In the end, Wainwright responds to the resilient denial of I'm Not Gonna Cry with the resolute Homeless. Despite crying "like a kid," he comes to terms with his losses, while accepting his future. Though he may be alone, there's plenty of life left to live.
Last Man on Earth is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box