If any musician is going to make a mockery of millennium madness, Loudon Wainwright
III is the man for the job.
The satirical folk singer/songwriter, best known for his 1973 hit "Dead Skunk," has
tackled social issues with prickly humor since he began recording in the '70s.
So it's no surprise to learn that Wainwright's upcoming album, Social Studies,
features the single "Y2K" (RealAudio excerpt) a perversely
amusing track that imagines the turn of the century not only fouling up the world's
computers, but ending the world.
Wainwright said he wrote the song because he hates computers. "Everyone is
staring into these things," he said from Paris during a recent European trip that included
a few concerts. "I'm f---in' sick of it. I don't have [a computer], and I'm not gonna get one
unless I have to."
Social Studies, due July 13 on Rykodisc's Hannibal imprint, marks the first time
the irreverent 52-year-old troubadour has devoted an entire LP to his wicked
commentary on the news. The 15-song album is a newly recorded collection of tunes
composed by Wainwright for his performances on National Public Radio and ABC's
"Nightline" during the past 10 years.
The songs include ruminations on such events as the Gulf War ("Bad Man") and the O.J.
Simpson murder trial ("O.J.").
"Y2K," the album's centerpiece and most timely song, is an uncharacteristically funky
number. "We used to imagine, question and dream/ Now all of our answers come up on
some screen," Wainwright sings. "Headed for trouble, I do believe/ It's coming your way
on New Year's Eve ... A few more measly months to go."
Joe Boyd, head of Hannibal and a veteran producer of such acts as R.E.M. (Fables of
the Reconstruction) and Richard and Linda Thompson (Shoot Out the Lights),
produced Social Studies with John Wood.
"There was no line-by-line agonizing over vocal tracks," Boyd said. "I've known
[Wainwright] for 25 years. He's spontaneous. It's one of his greatest gifts."
Boyd met Wainwright while working with folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
Wainwright was married to Kate McGarrigle in the 1970s, and they are the parents of
singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who released his debut LP last year. "I saw him play
before he was famous," Wainwright joked about his son.
The elder Wainwright was born in North Carolina, moved to New York in the '60s, and
made a name for himself in the Manhattan folk-music scene. His big break was the
novelty single "Dead Skunk," from 1972's Album III.
Wainwright has released numerous albums during the decade he was composing the
songs collected on Social Studies, but he insisted the new album represents a
change for him.
"I'm quite an autobiographical songwriter," said Wainwright, who plans to tour the States
when the album comes out. "My previous LPs are [based] on my own life. These songs
are more topical. I wanted to put them together and make a record out of it."
The collection offers Wainwright's wry commentary on Sen. Jesse Helms' conservative
politics ("Jesse Don't Like It") and the escapades of infamous ice skater Tonya Harding
Wainwright even included a tune ("New Street People") about smokers who are required
to step outside of their office buildings to indulge their habit.
One of the most inspired of Wainwright's new songs "What Gives" (
came about because of a less volatile issue that amused the songwriter: the surviving
Beatles coming together to complete John Lennon's "Free as a Bird" for The Beatles
Anthology: 1 (1995).
"Paul and George and Ringo, just a fraction of the Fab Four/ Just a few years back
Natalie and Nat King Cole dueted and went gold/ There's a way to make it pay, though
they've flown the coop," Wainwright sings. "Bring me the bones of Brian Jones and
[Janis] Joplin's tinted glasses .... and a caftan of Mama Cass."
While some tracks are simply amusing, others may well raise the hackles of religious
groups. "Conspiracies," for example, compares what Wainwright calls "the myths of
Jesus Christ and Santa Claus."
Irreverence is one of Wainwright's defining features, both in song and conversation.
When asked what he thinks he'll be doing on New Year's Eve, Wainwright said, "hiding
out, counting my shotgun shells, trying to be glib."