Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

From the beginning of his career, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III has been looking back. On his 1970 debut, he penned "School Days," a nostalgic song reminiscing about his days as a young stud. The joke at the time was that Wainwright wasn't even 25 yet. It's a joke that's stayed with him: Indeed, the man's three-decade-plus oeuvre is practically a master thesis on our slavish compulsion to romanticize the past at the expense of our perfectly OK present. Recovery is a collection of new recordings of old Wainwright songs, focusing chiefly on his first three albums, and "School Days" is rightly included. The Delaware of his youth is gone, as are Marlon Brando and James Dean, but "School Days," like the best of Recovery, is about piecing together scraps of memories to find the emotional truths that have remained.

Produced by Michigan's own Joe Henry, who adds his typically restrained melancholic touch, Recovery doesn't try to reinvent these songs. If anything, as in the wistful encounter between Wainwright and a groupie in the lonely "Motel Blues," the tales feel undisturbed — better to let time and perspective wash over them. What Wainwright and Henry have done with Recovery is the exact opposite of what Johnny Cash struggled to achieve on the American Recordings albums: By deemphasizing the performer's legacy and gravitas, the material attains a creaky humanity. And as a collection of the minor heartbreaks Wainwright's been able to wring through songwriting, Recovery finds him surprisingly present in his own work.

Friday, Sept. 26 at the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-761-1818.

Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].