Loudon Wainwright III
Attempted Mustache

The context: First emerging in the early '70s, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III got tagged as one of several potential "new Dylans." None of them lived up to that tag's unreasonable expectations, but Wainwright's sometimes wry, sometimes wrenching, always unblinking songs earned him a following that expanded considerably with the 1972 hit "Dead Skunk," from his third album (dubbed simply Album III). From the evidence of his follow-up, Attempted Mustache, mostly recorded quickly in Nashville with session musicians, success didn't make Wainwright comfortable.

The greatness: Some songs deal explicitly with the perils of fame. Others find Wainwright singing about restlessness and discomfort, particularly the kinds only made worse by ridiculous amounts of alcohol. On "A.M. World," he sings "Chauffeur's in the front, I'm in the back / it's a limousine and I'm a star," but it's more a sigh of alienated resignation than a celebration. On "Nocturnal Stumblebutt," Wainwright stretches a drunken late-night search for cigarettes into a portrait of a man who doesn't realize how pitiful he's become. Not all the tracks are bummers, however. "The Swimming Song" turns a childhood summer memory into a concise expression of what it takes to grow up, and on "Dilated To Meet You," Wainwright and then-wife Kate McGarrigle sing to their soon-to-arrive child, Rufus—who would later grow up to be a notable musician in his own right.

Defining song: Johnny Cash made Wainwright's memorable magic-realist story-song "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" part of his early-'90s comeback, and "Come A Long Way" finds Wainwright singing his wife's composition with the same sweetly heartbroken tone that characterizes her albums with sister Anna McGarrigle. But Attempted Mustache doesn't have a song more haunting than the album-closing "Lullaby." Without raising his voice, Wainwright pleads with someone to "shut up and go to bed," complaining about "sob stories" and "histrionics." "You're a late-night faucet that's got a drip," Wainwright complains heartlessly. He could be singing to a lover, or as the original lyric sheet implies, his newborn child. But in the 1998 reissue, he clears up who's on the receiving end of those bastardly instructions: "It's myself I'm telling to shut up." That might best sum up Wainwright's appeal: He isn't afraid to write songs sharp enough to injure himself.