There’s an inevitable sense of history repeating itself with Martha Wainwright and her sister Lucy Wainwright Roche recording Songs In The Dark. As well as continuing the Wainwright family’s remarkable tradition for musical collaboration, there’s a very obvious nod to the series of albums that Martha Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, recorded with her sister Anna McGarrigle – there’s the same beautifully minimal arrangements and gorgeous harmonies, although this is more than just a cosy nostalgia trip for the family.
Songs In The Dark has been described by The Wainwright Sisters as “an album of dark, twisted lullabies” and that certainly seems to fit the description of many of the songs gathered on it. As well as a handful of covers, there are a number of tracks written by their father Loudon Wainwright III, and if he really did lull his baby daughters to sleep with these songs, then it’s no small wonder than Martha once famously described him in song as a “bloody motherfucking asshole”.
For much of this album could be described as the musical equivalent of the cult book Go The Fuck To Sleep – although much of it sounds impossibly tasteful and beautifully played, there’s a hilariously dark wit just bubbling underneath the surface. For instance, Hobo’s Lullaby tells the story of a migrant worker who’ll only really find peace when he’s “died and gone to heaven”, while Loudon’s own well-known Lullaby has less than paternal lines like “shut your mouth and button your lip, you’re a late night faucet that’s got a drip”. It’s all so well crafted and sung though that it never becomes a depressing listen. Martha and Lucy’s voices work as wonderfully well together as you may expect, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s singing what lines.
Besides, the whole album isn’t all mordant humour – there’s a beautiful cover of El Condor Pasa, the traditional Peruvian folk song popularised by Simon & Garfunkel, and the entire album just sounds beautiful. Harmonicas drift in and out of some songs, there’s a stately piano instrumental called Russian Lullaby (the lullaby motif hangs heavy on Songs In The Dark), and a gorgeous rendition of Willie Nelson‘s Dusty Skies. Yet it’s the Wainwright/McGarrigle material that really shines. It’s quite a jolt in the middle of Baby Rocking Melody when Martha embarks on a spoken word section musing that it’s best to sing to a baby rather than “punch them in the mouth… as you get a ticket for that… and it makes you feel really bad”, and it must be strange for Lucy to sing the lyrics of Screaming Issue, a song written by her father about her some thirty years previously, and including lines like: “you’re so miserable lying next to me, I can’t help you”. Next to all this misanthropy, a cover of Richard & Linda Thompson‘s unrelentingly bleak End Of The Rainbow seems pretty appropriate.
Some people may see Songs In The Dark as a curio, simply recorded in order to keep the legacy of the McGarrigle canon alive and well. Yet it’s the black humour and obvious love for the material that lifts this into another sphere – these lullabies may well be ‘dark and twisted’ as promised, but there’s an odd sweetness about them as well. And it also posits the intriguing theory that the Wainwrights may sing these songs to their own children… maybe resulting in another album from a third generation in years to come. History repeating, indeed.