It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Rufus Wainwright released his debut album. I remember reading all the raves about him on a discussion list and finally getting a copy myself. Addiction came quickly, and the one song I found myself keep listening to was In My Arms. It’s the most sparingly orchestrated and nevertheless the most gripping song on the album; I remember getting goose bumps all over when midway a most sensual voice joined Rufus’. “WHO IS THAT!” I asked myself and immediately grabbed the CD booklet for information: the voice belongs to someone called Martha, who also shares Rufus’ family name. I had been waiting for a full-length from her ever since.
Martha Wainwright’s 1995 debut album did not disappoint and far exceeded my expectations. Her vocal is fierce even at the most subdued moments, and her lyrics are implosions that cause little earthquakes. It was an instant classic and without a doubt my favorite album of the year. Now, another 3 years have gone by, and her second album is released this week. Titled I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings too, it kinda makes you laugh out loud and leaves you wonder whether it is meant to be tragically ludicrous or ludicrously tragic? Quite a few of the songs are about soured relationships and lost friendships in surprisingly upbeat, up-tempo good humor, a side of Martha Wainwright that we’re not quite used to…yet. Whether this has to do with her recent marital bliss or not, the result is a delicious, defiant mixed bag of curiosity . If Martha Wainwright grips and throws punches, then I Know You’re Married but I’ve got Feelings too merely lures and muses out loud. The album starts out strong, sags and becomes complacent somewhere in the middle before it picks up sharply and ends alive and kicking again.
Opener Bleeding All over You is vintage Martha; there’s no tears, no repentance, no accusation and no complication in her unabashed confession but torrents of matters of fact in rapturous harmonies accompanied by declarative orchestrations. Who says unrequited love cannot be celebrated? Continuing in the same vein, a bitter saga of betrayal unexpectedly bursts into cheery, catchy and pretty cheesy Berlinda-Carlisle-esque chorus in You Cheated Me. Your indie alarm is probably going off as you read this: is Martha Wainwright going to pull a Liz Phair too? Well Liz Phair’s last album sucked not because it’s a pop album, but because it just sucks. With an album title like I Know You’re Married… you can’t take yourself too seriously. And what’s the harm in having a little bit fun? Still, I’d be very disappointed too if the whole album is packed with such sing-alongs. Jesus and Mary is a eulogy for a dead marriage and turning to religion looking for an after-life that may not be there at all. I love it when Martha juxtaposes irrelevant and rhyming words together and just let them roll out like this…baby hazy lazy…baby hazy lazy…
Coming Tonight is another buoyant song about the possibility of seeing an ex-flame who’s coming to town to play. It’s pretty forgettable compared to the more blatantly pop You Cheated Me. Tower Song is an allusion to Leonard Cohen as well as a fairy-tale like anti-war song, which, frankly, I’d appreciate a lot more if Martha sings one octave lower. The bluesy Hearts Club Band does bring her back to a lower key as she resolves to leave her lover as well as the band they’re both in. So Many Friends laments lost friends in a truly Kate Bush-ish style, from the vocal to the melody down to the arrangement. Originality may not be its forte but it does bring back a lot of nostalgia.
An edgier Wainwright returns with In the Middle of the Night, a song about a loved one’s brush with illness and death. The Psychedelic The George Song sets the tone for the rest of the album: surreal, mystic, and just eerily beautiful. George never made it to the moon…you’re probably not going to hear a more chirpy song this year about a friend that committed suicide. Niger River is written while Wainwright was in Mali, thinking and dreaming about her far away lover. Perhaps Wainwright’ more concerned with writing tight music than sharp lyrics. This did slightly throw me off the track on a first listen. After all, most of us have come to know Wainwright through her words and how her vocalize and enunciate and play with them. On repeated listen, however, I become captivated by the music and how it actually has a language of its own, irrelevant of the words that are sung to. Jimi is the rocker of the album. It starts with rather quiet, sparing melodies and philosophical musings that almost have an East-Asian feel to it, then all of a sudden launches into a rhythmic, classic rock anthem. She has never sounded more magnificent.
The Pink Floyd cover See Emily Play is cutesy as well as trippy. It might not be spectacular, but Wainwright is clear and precise, and everyone should have the right to have fun their favorite song is what I say. The closer I Wish I Were is an understated beauty that might get overlooked if you’re not careful. Even as Wainwright drags out words like “afraid” or “is” for some breathless 10 seconds, you’re still stunned by it’s gorgeous simplicity and how effortlessly everything seems to come together like the most nonchalant, spontaneous jam session. Some might call it an anticlimax. I think it’s a perfect ending.
There will always be inevitable comparisons of the Wainwright siblings. Too keen to dazzle than just shine now that he’s a star, Rufus tends to favor pomposity over substance these days. Martha, on the other hand, is a mine of iron ores, rich and raw. Fans of her debut album may be jarred by the obvious commercial appeal, the lush production, the star-studded guest appearances and the penchant for theatricals in this sophomore project, but as I’ve learned, first listen can be misleading. This may not be her nearly flawless debut, it is a mighty and worthy follow-up nevertheless.