This is Martha Wainwright’s fourth album of original songs since and including her 2005 eponymous debut, and until now her career highlight has arguably been 2009’s album of Edith Piaf songs. As a fan since her early releases I’ve always longed for an album that carried the quality of the early EP’s ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ title track. And at long last here it is. Made with her long-time producer, collaborator, husband and father of her children, Brad Alberta, her powerful voice is given free rein to pour from these songs in the fluid, languid way that more often than not has seemed at an arm’s length away.
Opener ‘Around The Bend’ is an end of year mixtape cert, an organic, high on drama and melody with a bitter sweet lyric killer of a song. There’s a tip of the hat to Patti Smith, but it stamps Martha Wainwrights personality as the indisputable core of this album, a point that is driven home with ‘Franci’, a mother’s love song to her child. This kind of song can easily be mawkish without effort but this song avoids these pitfalls, mainly as it is such a wonderful tune and lyrically avoids becoming to sugary, despite it repeated refrain ‘Everything about you is wonderful’.
‘Traveller’ is song about a friend who passed way from cancer, bandmate Thomas Bartlett’s brother and in particular how dead people stay with us after they’ve gone. It’s touching and fragile, but powerful and understated too. It’s a fine piece of crafted songwriting and carries the line ‘And you won the race and you were furthest from last’ without making you cringe. ‘Look Into My Eyes’ is a family composition with Martha’s aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily, it floats over a trickling synth hook and a French refrain, with jazz infused piano and saxophone. The album is both contemporary in that it sounds fresh but timeless in that it could have been written and recorded and any time in the last forty years or so, something that only the best music can claim to pull off. ‘Before The Children Came Along’ is an autobiographical love song about Martha and husband Brad. Vocally it is supreme, it encompasses jazz, folk, art rock leanings and vocal gymnastics without a sideways glance and just as you wait to see where it takes you next ‘Window’ returns us to Martha’s children, this time eldest son Archangelo, a song written in response to his jealousy at Martha’s brother Rufus’ song about his younger sibling, ‘Francis’. The song moves around on a winding uncertain path but is infused with focus and purpose.
‘Piano Music’ is a poem by author and poet Michael Ondaatje (‘The English Patient’) set to music by co-producer Bartlett. It’s faintly Brechtian and sparse, a brief interlude and a thing of heavy beauty. ‘Alexandria’ follows, written by Beth Orton, I’d love to say it’s subject matter was the broken haven in ‘The Walking Dead’ but I‘d be making that up, so I won’t. ‘So Down’ is a guitar, bass, drum laden melodramatic rock song, with a Bowieesque sax gluing everything together. It’s a change of feeling and style for the album, but the voice remains strong and impressive, and the track is somehow another album highlight, a powerful, torrent of song, that threaten to burst the banks yet never quite reaches a level of panic required to push it over the edge.
‘One Of Us’ starts with piano and powerful crystal voice, it is classic songsmith balladry in the vein of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and it has a drop dead spot on vocal. ‘Take the Reins’ is modern pop, over minimal beats, it has the ghostly feel of a latter-day Radiohead classic, and brings something completely different to the album, whilst meeting the quality set by all that’s preceded it. ‘Francis’ is the Rufus penned song for Martha’s youngest. It has Rufus’ stylings all over it, so much so you can almost hear him vocalising it. There is also a bonus track in some territories and it’s wonderful. A slow, smoky orchestral broody song, ‘Somehow’ is quite different in mood from much of the main album, but I wish it was on my UK CD, because it is splendid.
And there it is, the one of the albums of the year that I’ve always wanted Martha Wainwright to put out is finally here. There are few records this year to touch this, and with this she truly steps out of Rufus’ shadow and becomes the Wainwright sibling to be bettered. A great collection.