Loudon Wainwright III: Here Come The Choppers
Label: Sovereign Artists
Sound/Style: contemporary folk with wry humor and sharp insights
Caution: mild obscenity and adult themes
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Loudon Wainwright’s 1972 song "Dead Skunk" probably didn’t earn him as much notoriety as his occasional guest appearances as a musically inclined doctor on the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H. The role seems appropriate. Wainwright’s music has long leaned toward personal and social ills offset with dry wit – much the same approach as the beleaguered surgeons on that anti-war television sitcom.
Now, 35 years into his career, the songwriter-singer-actor is cutting even closer to the bone, addressing some weighty topics on Here Come The Choppers but using lower doses of comedic anesthetic. He is at his most confounding on the title cut, which uses terrorism as a stepping-off point for a bleak fantasy set in Los Angeles. The enemy’s identity isn’t clear as Wainwright skewers consumerism, show business and the Bush administration just for starters. Among the lyrics: "the inspectors found nothing – that’s just not right/Whole Foods and K-Mart are targets tonight" and "the Meridian Health Club and its machines/of torture will be blown to smithereens." Wainwright seems to suggest the war in Iraq is less about liberating a country than about protecting the American way of life. He also appears to scoff at the notion that a shallow and commercially driven culture is worth saving.
Wainwright is considerably more straightforward and gripping on "No Sure Way," a first-person account of being stranded in a subway car underneath New York City’s collapsing World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. With quiet sobriety, he paints an understated picture of helplessness and displacement that doesn’t end when the subway passengers finally emerge.
He offers a sarcastic take on America’s "Bible Belt" region on "God’s Country." But, by adding a rustic (if not corny) musical backdrop, the song is nearly as easy to swallow as a tall glass of sweetened iced tea. Whether or not he means to debunk traditional Christianity, Wainwright probes the questionable presumption that God could be more present in one geographical area than another.
The singer can be maddeningly veiled about his themes. In "Hank and Fred," he purports to mourn the passing of children’s television personality Mr. Rogers while juxtaposing details of country legend Hank Williams Sr.’s tragic and premature death, implying but never confirming a satirical intent. This tendency toward covert messages can be unsettling, as it is in "Make Your Mother Mad." On the surface, the shuffling acoustic rocker plays tug-of-war with the emotions of an estranged family, but the battle for a child’s devotion in the lyric has a troubling undercurrent of potential incest. On the closing cut, "Things," he drops his verbal subterfuges and vulnerably offers his affection to a daughter, revealing a softening heart beneath his intellect and thorny exterior.
Though musicianship alone probably won’t convert those cool to Wainwright’s offbeat approach, his well-chiseled songs enjoy thoughtful and textured treatment here by a band of intuitive players including guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Jim Keltner. The tasteful accompaniment and arrangements expand the record from standard folk music fare to blues, country, mountain balladry and roots-rock. Even if Here Come The Choppers was musically pedestrian, though, it would stand out. Such are Wainwright’s astute, if quirky, observations. When the songwriter appeared on M*A*S*H, the sound of helicopters meant wounded soldiers were arriving. Wainwright’s own choppers are heavy with wounded hearts and souls who, in spite of the artist’s peculiar bedside manner, occasionally manage to find catharsis and hope for healing.
Warning: This CD contains mild obscenity and mature themes.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.