Martha, my dear
From her album cover, Martha Wainwright stares out through a vermillion haze, the photo enlarged several times so that her features have become slightly unfocused, threatening to come undone.
Such willingness by Wainwright to expose herself defines every track of her eponymously titled debut album. Daughter of folk heroes Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (and sister of Rufus), there were a lot of expectations thrust upon Wainwright, which kept her out of the studio for years. The wait was well worth it, though. Her knack for wordplay adds a welcome twist to the confessional singer/songwriter genre, but it's the inviting flutter of her theatrically tinged voice that sets her apart from the familial mob.
She uses her voice to brilliant effect on tracks such as "Far Away" and "Factory," playing games with vowels that make her choruses linger in a way today's pop giggles never could. That takes nothing away from her songwriting skill, however, which is remarkably nuanced. Take "Ball & Chain," where she waxes sarcastically about "sexual psychology": "I heard she could read and write too/And she's getting a degree in fucking you." Better yet, take "TV Show," on which she attributes her new self-worth to Oprah and laments, "So when you touch me there/I'm scared that you'll see/Not the way that I don't love you/But the way I don't love myself."
At first blush, Wainwright sounds pained by how her love is undermined by self-loathing, but the double negatives, in fact, muddle everything, showing the singer to be simultaneously haunted by dissatisfaction with herself and what she doesn't feel for her lover. There's not a track on the album free of such introspection, anguish, and sadness. While at times it seems like you'll sink with Wainwright, she's always one step ahead of you, her hand extended to drag you forward through her folk opera. She might have been terrified of becoming the first Wainwright to turn out a lackluster debut, but, truth be told, she might be the new gold standard for the family to measure itself against. •