Tuesday, June 6, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1648: Martha Wainwright

Exactly 200 reviews from the last time I rolled a Martha Wainwright album, we roll her again! In case you’re wondering, that’s a little more than two years later.

In case you have a more immediate observation along the lines of “holy crap, is this the third review of the month and we’re only six days in?” the answer is yes. Not coincidentally, I am on vacation. Amazing how much more time I have to listen to music and write about it when my time is my own.

Disc 1648 is…Self-Titled

Artist: Martha Wainwright

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover?  A Giant Head so Giant it has become a Giant Face. In your Face, Giant Martha Face!

How I Came To Know It: A few jobs ago I got to know a person working next to me named Anna and we struck up many a conversation about music. Martha Wainwright was one of her recommendations. Thanks, Anna!

How It Stacks Up: I have two Martha Wainwright albums (she has released six but I only like two of them – this one and 2008’s “I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too” (reviewed at Disc 1448). Of the two, her self-titled album is easily the better record, so #1.

Rating: 4 stars but almost 5

I sincerely hope that Martha Wainwright achieved something akin to therapy writing and recording the songs on her 2005 self-titled album, because if not…yeesh. She goes deep here, taking you on a journey of heartache, desire and emotional complexity that left my ears happy and my heart a little exhausted.

I am not an unconditional Martha Wainwright fan. Wainwright has a natural warble to her vocals and has never met a melody she didn’t want to mess with, even if just a little bit. She has a tendency to sing all around a song’s structure that can feel like modern interpretative dance. When it lands, it takes your breath away. When it doesn’t land, it quickly dissolves into a hot mess. On her debut record she makes all the right choices in a way that she never recreates quite so well again.

Wainwright’s writing style if like freestyle poetry which is not always the best match to pop music sensibilities. Good thing she doesn’t give a fig about pop music sensibilities. She bends them to her will throwing progressions at you that follow a twisted ley line underneath and through pop, jazz, R&B and half a dozen other things I’m too musically illiterate to define.

The topics are all emotionally intense, with a clarity of expression that can be uncomfortably direct. “Ball & Chain” starts with the excitement of raw sexual desire:

“Bend me over the back of the car seat
Take me down to easy street”

Which then transforms into hurt and betrayal:

“Yeah her t**** were higher than mine
With a waist that is sugar-fine
I heard she could read and write too
And she's getting a degree in f***ing you”

The whole record has the stain of betrayal, with Wainwright doubling down on the topic with “Bloody Mother F***king ***hole”, which is up there with Marianne Faithfull’s “Why D’ya Do It?”, Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Lucinda Williams’ “Those Three Days” as the nastiest break up song ever written. Wainwright’s entry in the genre opens with…

“Poetry has no place for a heart that's a whore” 

…and gets progressively rawer and meaner from there. In fact, despite the tight race, I’ve gotta give Wainwright the gold medal on this one. Whoever this song was written for has probably already spontaneously combusted from the rage released in their direction. What is so great about this song is that it is not just angry, it is also filled with that mix of self-loathing and brokenness that comes when things fall apart, turned both outward and inward in a widening gyre of vitriol that burns like an acid bath on both narrator and audience alike. How she was able to sing it with the evocative mix of grief and fury and not be reduced to cinders herself is a minor miracle.

The line between creating great art and collapsing under the weight of self-serving ambition can be razor thin. But on this record Wainwright consistently walks on the right side of that line. When she does cuts herself on it, every wound is deliberate and purposeful. The result is bloody but brilliant.

Best tracks: Far Away, Factory, These Flowers, Ball & Chain, Don’t Forget, When the Day is Short, Bloody Mother F***ing ***hole, Whither Must I Wander

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BMFA is a song for/about or, as Wikipedia prefers, "inspired by" her father Loudon. This song almost never fails to bring tears to my eyes, especially if I imagine my own daughters to be singing this to me.

Knowing that, listen again to the heartbreak of an angry child singing:

I will not pretend
I will not put on a smile
I will not be alright for you
When all I wanted was to be good

It brings me tears anew.