Following on from last year’s duo album with Lucy Wainwright Roche as The Wainwright Sisters which was reviewed here (although she did release the all-French soundtrack collection to Season 4 of Canadian TV series Trauma in 2013), Goodnight City is Martha Wainwright’s first studio album proper since 2012’s Come Home to Mama. It’s also the first since becoming a mother for the second time, her second son, Francis, being born in 2014. Given the fact that the Wainwright clan inevitably draw on their extended family and the relationships that entail, it inevitably includes a couple of songs connected to that. Indeed, the toddler gets two numbers written for and about him.
On Franci, we learn she wanted to call the kid Valentine but was persuaded by her husband, bassist and producer Brad Albetta, to name him after her late mom’s middle name, which was, in turn, that of her father. A pop song of maternal adoration, in typical Wainwright glass half full/half empty fashion, it can’t help tempering the gushiness with a warning that , while, “everything about you is wonderful,” life can get hard and “you might want to get down on your knees and pray to God you got what it takes to beat the odds.”
The second, album closer Francis, is an airy piano ballad penned by his uncle, Rufus Wainwright (who’s also behind the ivories), that, adorned with classical strings, sounds like it might have come from some 40s romantic movie soundtrack. Martha’s swooping and soaring vocal calls to mind Tori Amos (whose fondness for singing in the voices of different female personas is echoed throughout the album) rather than the softer Patti Smith tones elsewhere. To avoid sibling jealousy, her older son, Arcangelo, also gets a song about him, the pulsing, breathily-sung Window, a Kate Bush-like number, here with darkling folk colours and imagery.
Of course, having kids naturally changes your life, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent to regret some of the things you lose in the process. Thus, the acoustic guitar backed Before The Children Came Along, which initially has a similar musical mood (but a little more cabaret than film) to Francis before sonic shells and vocal gymnastics explode midway, presumably intended to reflect the ups and downs of a marital relationship following the loss of pre-parenting intimacy.
Balancing life there’s always death, and Traveller is a gradually building and slightly rock shaded song inspired by pianist Thomas Bartlett’s brother who died of cancer. However, while informed by loss, it’s actually about how people live on in the lives and memories of those left behind and it’s hard not to also hear it in the context of her own mother, Kate McGarrigle.
The family’s musical connection is at its strongest for Look Into My Eyes, a swirling, synths rippling number with a heady late night ambience and moody, noirish sax from Doug Wieselman, written by herself, aunt Anna, cousin Lily Lanken and brother Rufus, who also contributes vocals, and partly sung in French.
Making the point that it’s not autobiographical, album opener Around The Bend provides one of several highlights, a nervy, shuffling number about mental collapse in which the protagonist, seemingly a recovering addict performer, sings “I been going round the bend, I been taking lots of pills and things.. there’s lots of things I done I would not wish on anyone.”
Exploring out of her comfort zone, driven by surging drums and raging electric guitar, So Down finds her wading into Bowie-esque new wave punk, conjuring perhaps thoughts of Kristen Hersh, but then, by contrast, One Of Us, co-penned with Glen Hansard, is a quietly reflective cello adorned, piano ballad on which she at times vocally echoes mother Kate.
That’s even more true of Piano Music, a poem written for her by Michael Ondaatje and set to music by Thomas Bartlett with a simple, pared back arrangement and conservatoire vocal reading that can’t help but recall Talk To Me of Mendocino.
The two remaining numbers are also sourced from other female writers and written specifically for the album. Beth Orton’s Alexandria is a heady, dark and turbulent affair, its melancholia weighted by the foreboding nature of the piano, brass and Wainwright’s prowling voodoo blues vocals, while the itchy rhythm, folk blues beats and cosmic synths of Take The Reins come from Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Interestingly, in one track-by-track interview for the album prior to its release, Wainwright also talks in glowing terms about Somehow, an end of an affair song written- but as yet unrecorded- by Australian singer-songwriter Julia Stone, but, for whatever reason, this does not appear on the finished album, a mystery hopefully to be remedied somewhere down the line to add a finishing touch to what is a challenging, often experimental, but ultimately rewarding listening experience.
Around the Bend (Live)
Goodnight City is Out Now