The last time we heard from Martha Wainwright — okay, the last time we got a solo album from her — was 2012's Come Home to Mama, a record that was partly in response to losing her mother, Kate McGarrigle, in early 2010, right after becoming a mother herself (her son Arcangelo was born in 2009). Since then, she's had another child (Francis Valentine) and made a record with her sister Lucy Wainwright Roche (last year's creepy lullabies album, Songs In The Dark).
Goodnight City feels lighter. With Wainwright busy with two kids at home, Wainwright and co-producer Thomas Bartlett opted for an album split roughly down the middle, half originals and half covers by or co-writes written with friends who had Wainwright in mind. This served to open Wainwright's music up, because the writers who contributed — Lily Lanken and Anna McGarrigle, Michael Ondaatje's words paired with Bartlett's piano music, Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus and Rufus Wainwright — are so varied.
But as anyone who's heard Wainwright interpret Piaf (or noticed a bit of a punk-rock edge to her folk performances) knows, it was probably never Wainwright's intention to be stylistically pinned down. Goodnight City lets Wainwright's jazz side show; it lets her bluesy contemplative side show; it weaves in some French, some soulful retro-pop, and it tries on experimental heaviness and blows off some steam.
Garbus' "Take The Reins," for example, is a funky four-minute dance party — so fun — while Orton's "Alexandria" (about waiting for the kids to go to sleep so you can get it on) is intense and jammy, the album kind of letting down its hair for a moment. Things get heavier still with Wainwright's own Sonic Youth-ish "So Down."
Ultimately, variety is good for the album, but here's the thing: Martha's own songs can be completely riveting. Take opener "Around the Bend," a playful and honest (in a moulding the truth like Play-Doh kind of way) and funny song on which Wainwright postures and tries on a character, Dylan-style, but sounds completely at home in her voice, delivering lines like "I used to do a lot of blow" (open and wild-sounding) and "but now I only do the show" (closed, more adult and responsible). "Watch out for my life / watch out for my creativity," she declares later. It's cool.
Often, the songs sound like love songs for friends or lovers, but it's Wainwright's two young sons she's singing to on catchy tunes like "Franci," which fills her youngest in on some of his family history, and "Window," a solemn-sounding, experimental song for Arcangelo. "Before the Children Came Along," a breezy, sweeping, sepia-toned look back at the beginning of romance, is probably actually for Wainwright's husband, Brad Albetta, who played bass on and co-produced the album.
Wainwright probably didn't set out to prove that most of the time she writes for herself better than others do, but she kind of did. "Traveller" is arguably the best song on the album; it's certainly the most haunting, and it feels like extra attention went into its production. It's a tribute to Bartlett's brother Ezra, who died far too young, at 40. The idea that Wainwright infuses in the almost Chrissie Hynde-like chorus is that he's still out there somewhere, travelling. Put this on in the car and crank it.
The one cover Martha didn't dare alter was her brother Rufus's song "Francis," the closer. With Rufus on piano and Martha singing, it's full of pure light and motherly love and perfection. (Cadence Music Group)