You could never accuse the Wainwrights of being shy about their family difficulties. Rufus Wainwright‘s Dinner At Eight, Loudon Wainwright III‘s Hitting You, and of course Martha Wainwright‘s own delightfully titled paean to her father, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole have all been so intensely personal that it’s sometimes felt like the listener is sitting in on a huge therapy session.
Martha Wainwright’s last album, Come Home To Mama, continued the tradition by writing songs so bleak about her marriage that husband Brad Albetta wore a full monks outfit and black face mask throughout the tour to promote the album. Thankfully, four years on from that last album, Wainwright and Albetta are still together and Goodnight City seems to signal something of a fresh start for the Canadian.
It’s her most collaborative album, for a start. While Wainwright is no stranger to the odd cover version – indeed, she recorded a whole album of Edith Piaf standards a few years ago – Goodnight City sees songs written for her by the likes of her brother Rufus, Beth Orton, and tUnE-yArDs‘ Merrill Garbus. That’s not to say that the old Wainwright style is completely out of the window of course: opening track Round The Bend is reminiscent of her debut album, a dark tale of a woman who “used to do a lot of blow” who has “seen and done things I wouldn’t wish on anyone”. In a typical Wainwright twist though, none of this may be what it seems: “watch out for my white lies” runs the killer kiss-off.
There are also two songs dedicated to Wainwright’s youngest son Francis – one of her own entitled Franci which turns an open letter to her son (“I wanted to name you Valentine, but Dad convinced me to change my mind”) into a gloriously surging anthemic pop song, while Uncle Rufus’ contribution Francis is as sublime as you’d expect: a swooning piano ballad redolent of his Want One and Want Two albums.
Look Into My Eyes is another collaborative family effort, co-written with aunt Kate McGarrigle and cousin Lily Lanken, and is one of the most startling things that Wainwright has recorded – a dramatic, atmospheric ballad featuring flutes, synths, a saxophone and lyrics that flit between English and French. Garbus’ contribution, Take The Reins, is also surprising, not being as remotely frantic as you may expect. In fact, it’s a slinky, slightly jazzy ballad that manages to combine the very best elements of Garbus and Wainwright.
Throughout, Wainwright is vocally on top form – whether she be beautifully restrained on the gorgeously poignant One Of Us, or swooping and hollering on Traveller, a song which sounds like it could be a tribute to her late mother. but is in fact about an old friend of Wainwrights who died of cancer aged 40. Admittedly, some tracks don’t work so well, with Piano Music (with lyrics by The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje) is a meandering, formless mess and Before The Children Came Along is a forgettable diversion compared to the rest of the album.
Yet the experimental edge that Wainwright has introduced with this album bodes well for the future – while she may not be writing operas like her brother, she remains one of the most intriguing, honest songwriters around today.