Loudon Wainwright III has always been an odd bird. As a singer-songwriter, he's well aware of folk music traditions and incorporates them into his music. Yet he never pretends to be someone he's not. He's never been a hard travelin' hobo or rough and tumble laborer. He comes from an upper class New England family and he sings about what he knows. He also has a quirky and sometimes dark sense of humor. All of this adds up to a recipe for a cult artist and Wainwright certainly could be classified as such. But as occasionally happens with cult artists, some scrap of their weird sensibility connects with the mainstream. That happened to Wainwright in 1972 when his oddball single "Dead Skunk" suddenly became a hit. How would he follow that up? By doing what he damn well pleases, of course, which brings us to 1973's Attempted Mustache.
The album opens with a fantastic folk/pop confection called "The Swimming Song." Wainwright himself plucks a banjo throughout and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw pops in at the end. The lyrics are either incredibly silly or strikingly poignant depending on your point of view. "A.M. World" takes a sardonic view of his recently acquired fame. Wainwright goes back to his childhood for the brief a cappella tune "Liza," a reminiscence about an old playmate who just happened to grow up to be Liza Minnelli. "I Am the Way" is recorded live and displays Wainwright's penchant for iconoclasm. He takes the tune of Woody Guthrie's "New York Town" and sings from the perspective of a sacrilegious Jesus, giving a gentle ribbing to two revered legends. Folk singers could rock too and Wainwright certainly does on "Clockwork Chartreuse." This song contains one of his most controversial lyrics as it sarcastically takes the view of a violent misogynist. Some have claimed the song to be an endorsement of such behavior. Those who understand satire know otherwise.
For "Down Drinking at the Bar" Wainwright gets rowdy and bluesy on an ode to exactly what the title promises. Next comes the album's centerpiece, the dark acoustic song "The Man Who Couldn't Cry." It's a vivid and poetic tale of a misunderstood outcast and has become one of Wainwright's best known songs, partially thank to Johnny Cash's excellent cover version. But the original is a powerful classic of its own. At the time, Wainwright had just married Kate McGarrigle, another up and coming folksinger, and here he presents a gorgeous version of her song "Come a Long Way." "Nocturnal Stumblebutt" is another rocker, this one is about waking up in the middle of the night to try and find a cigarette. The Wainwright home life is again referenced in "Dilated to Meet You," an ode to Loudon and Kate's newborn son Rufus who himself would grow up to be an acclaimed singer and performer. The album concludes with "Lullaby." Of course, Wainwright's idea of a lullaby opens with the line "Shut up and go to bed." He references Rufus in the lyrics but in the album's liner notes explains that he's really singing to himself. Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of always being slightly out of step. For those attuned to his way of thinking, Attempted Mustache provides plenty of great tunes and odd turns.
- Adam Reshotko