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Yet his first offering via Virgin, last year's History, is quite simply his finest product in recent memory. While he mutes the more outrageous aspects of his naturally goofy bent, there's still plenty to spawn a guffaw or two--particularly "Talking New Bob Dylan," his response to those who insist on perpetuating something that may have been true for a couple of hours.
However, History concentrates more on intensely personal self-examination, disclosing poignant vignettes in a heightened, no-holds-barred, often self-deprecating fashion. Although previous works have offered a variety of Wainwright-penned and -performed confessionals, ranging from the outright slapstick to the flat heart-rending, History is mostly a stark confrontation with pain and love, sans the metaphorical or the maudlin.
"Sometimes I Forget" examines the boiling caldron of emotions he felt--and continues to experience--upon the death of his father, famed Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr.
"Oh, it's still as painful as hell," Wainwright quietly admits. "I'm still struggling with it, every day. If there's good from it at all, it's that it seems to have given others in similar situations an outlet for their own grief." "Sometimes I Forget" is followed hard by "Handful of Dust," wherein Wainwright employs blues lyrics written by his late father in a moving, eerie eulogy of sorts. Powerful stuff.
Likewise, "Father and Son" finds Wainwright on the elder end of the pairing, attempting to give sage advice to a rebellious, teenage son:
"I don't know what all this fighting's for/We're having a teenage, middle-age war," he sings, eventually concluding with a less-than-happily-ever-after ending: "Maybe it's power, push and shove/Maybe it's hate, but probably it's love."
But easily the most powerful song on the album is "Hitting You," in which Wainwright recalls losing his temper with his daughter. "It was just my daughter and me for about a year--sort of an experiment," Wainwright says. "Living with her was tough--it was a crash course. When I wrote the song, she was the first one I played it for. She liked it. She understood it. I was devastated by what I'd done, but the song is a powerful reminder. In fact, the experience of living with her is encapsulated in many songs I wrote. I guess it was kind of selfish, because I wrote a lot and ended up getting a lot out of it. More than she did, maybe."
Never one to hang on to a sad note (or any note, for that matter) for too long, Wainwright comments upon the current state of his label (Hell, I've got to be making them money--History and Career Moves together didn't cost as much to make as a Guns N' Roses backstage deli platter") and about the chance that he'll play "Dead Skunk" in concert these days.
"Oh, I play it now and then--heavy on the 'then.' Or when somebody holds a knife to my throat. Jeez, it's like having red hair. You just can't get away from it. Besides, I've got another song people will be calling the 'New Dead Skunk.' It's called 'I Wish I Was a Lesbian.' Naturally, it's written from a woman's point of view. It came to me when I was in this bar. I kept on calling this chick a babe, and she just got this disgusted look on her face and mumbled it. It stuck in my mind.
"That's right!" Wainwright half-shouts. "Get ready for 'I Wish I Was a Lesbian,' Phoenix. It'll blow your socks off!