Martha Wainwright: I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
Martha Wainwright lives up to her DNA on an intensely moving sophomore album.
Few musical dynasties -- be they Lennon, Dylan, or Jackson -- can match the originality and vitality of the Wainwright clan. Not only did Loudon Wainwright III and ex-wife Kate McGarrigle create some of the most intelligent, offbeat records of the '70s, they produced two children doing likewise now: Rufus and Martha. The latter’s sophomore album heralds the arrival of a magnetic, magnificent singer-songwriter. On I Know You're Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, Martha Wainwright excels at both singing and songwriting, and earns herself a spot among this decade’s foremost performers.
The proof is instant, with the immediately gripping album opener “Bleeding All Over You”. Over a spare, swooning arrangement, Wainwright intimates, “There are days when the cage doesn’t seem to open very wide at all / There are other days that would shock the most indiscriminate lovers of all”. As the track progresses, gradually escalating in lushness and loudness, Wainwright longs for an ex-lover who's moved on to another girlfriend, and eventually a wife and daughter. (Unclear if the girlfriend and wife are the same person; just that Wainwright, to her chagrin, is neither.) She recites the album title as though a wrench is being turned upon every chamber of her heart.
Wainwright’s voice is an instrument of unique beauty, a versatile gift that can unexpectedly expand from deep sensual rasp to floating throaty wail and back. Though she’d probably be laughed off American Idol, her vocals quake and moan with unbridled emotion, encompassing both pain and passion, mapping the peaks and valleys of life lived: adversity feared and conquered, heartbreak savored and survived. On “Comin' Tonight”, Married’s most gloriously catchy song, Wainwright muses, “I could steal a melody / Of this I am allowed”. This speaks to a characteristic that distinguishes her from, and often elevates her above, other idiosyncratically voiced singers (Bjork, Kate Bush, Jeff Buckley). She allows the melody to do its work, and doesn't let her voice overpower or defeat it. Though her voice clearly has the capacity to go all over the place, she harnesses it. Married's weakest tracks (“Tower Song”, “Niger River”) are the ones where she indulges in superfluous vocal acrobatics. With Wainwright, the power is best rested with the song rather than the singer.
Luckily, Wainwright is a fantastic songwriter, capable of tuneful hooks and affecting lyrics. On “The George Song”, a living room make-out session turns sour as Wainwright slaughters a rock geek sacred cow. “You played the Captain / And I will never understand / Why you love the Beefheart / More than you could love the common man”. In under 25 words, she has both questioned and debunked the classist exclusivity of Beefheart's cultish fandom, with between-the-lines accusations of misogyny and elitism. But the track’s upbeat groove belies her agony over the title character’s suicide. The darkly compelling “In the Middle of the Night”, inspired by her mother’s cancer scare, begins ominously, and builds to an epic, spine-tingling conclusion. “You Cheated Me” is a straight-up pop number that suggests what Patti Smith was twenty years ago, or what Tegan and Sara will be twenty years from now. Two albums in, Wainwright is already a master at crafting poignant songs within wildly disparate idioms.
Wainwright’s songwriting prowess hardly diminishes her interpretive talents. Judging by the two covers here, she is one of few singer-songwriters who could render a covers album something more than a masturbatory novelty. She deftly inhabits the work of fellow visionaries Syd Barrett and Annie Lennox -- “See Emily Play” and “Love is a Stranger”, respectively -- and puts a fresh spin on their well-known standards. "Emily" even features assistance from mom Kate and aunt Anna, turning this somewhat patriarchal song into a simultaneous family reunion/girl power moment.
True, there's nothing as strikingly audacious as “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”, Wainwright’s scathing first single. But Married improves even on Wainwright’s excellent 2005 debut. It’s a more subtle, diverse, self-assured affair. She is such a formidable force on this record that guest spots from musty rock gods Pete Townshend, Donald Fagen, and Garth Hudson are barely noticeable, or worth noticing. In both mind and voice, Wainwright is a singular beacon of brilliance, one who outshines all but the greatest singer-songwriters of her generation.