Friday, 23 May 2008

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: I Wish I Were


This thing, the grain of the voice, that Barthes kept talking about; quite often it matters more than the song that's being sung, that is if the listener is inclined to maintain the illusion of lack of distance between singer and song for long enough; that is, if there is any illusion about it. No one doubts that the Ian Curtis of "Twenty Four Hours" was singing about himself, nor the Kurt Cobain of "No Apologies." But hedge against those certainties Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" or, as though I needed to emphasise it further, Randy Newman's "Short People," which are clearly character studies. Then consider the huge grey area in the middle where Liz Frazer or Beth Gibbons may or may not be concealing truths about themselves, may or may not be narrators at one remove.

So you see the difficulties I have in talking about Martha Wainwright, a woman who by all accounts is happily married (married, moreover, to Brad Alberta, the musical director and principal producer of her new album, which to add to snaky ladders is entitled I know you're married but I've got feelings too) yet who spends these 49 quietly exhausting minutes torn, almost unutterably torn, between husband and non-husband, between future love and lost love, between herself and the River Niger. Or a guy named George who thinks Beefheart is above the common man. It's not easy, and I think that intentionally so.

The cover, controversial to canting purists, is still vaguely ambiguous; an inverted monochrome Martha sprawled all over her sofa, a strange smile of half-closed eyes but no other obvious evidence of recent self-pleasure. On the reverse, a golden Martha as caught in the half-light by Sam Taylor Wood, on the left of the picture, gazing apprehensively towards the mirror beside a shrunken disco ball. The record is a journey through an intermittently troubled river, during which various passengers - a Pete Townshend here, a Donald Fagen there - hop on and off as unobtrusively as possible, for the show is hers. Rufus confines himself to one cameo (harmony on the aforementioned "George Song") while Kate and Anna are best and most startlingly heard on a straight rendition of "See Emily Play," Martha tucking Syd's nursery rhyme back into its original cot but is the childhood-as-key thing really that obvious?

What is unavoidably obvious is that these thirteen performances are vitally carried by Martha and what she does with her voice more than what she writes with her hands; the slowly stunning (like a sixteen-ton safe hitting one's head at a speed of 2 rpm) "In The Middle Of The Night" with its death-spelling long black limousine outside, the way Martha's tongue tries manually to invert the line "As you walk to the top of the hill" so that he tumbles down in time to meet the steady breakout of Africa/Brass horns acting as delayed reaction police sirens; the curving malunion of "Bleeding All Over You" where her gutturals make "daughter" indistinguishable from "cow shit"; the terrifying non-hysteria of "You Cheated Me."

In many places married isn't too far away from Third; the flotation Sherman tank of "Tower Song" seems as unanchored as anything Gibbons utters (sex as 9/11 metaphor/substitute), the Lydon cackle of "I'm on the back end of you" (which she makes into one gargling gargoyle of a syllable) in "Hearts Club Band." In "River Niger" her labial vowels ("Take, take my hand, and push") and the candid caress of Cameron Greider's nylon acoustic eventually merge with an Eno night. The serenely shattering "Jimi" (half dusk prayer, half arsequake eruption) finds her racking her soul for her dad, herself as her dad, "this dead woman in my lane," "this man in my house," slamming her head against different doors all labelled The Past in different hues of perditious pastel.

But come together it must - and her "See Emily Play" (did she get sung to sleep by it in her childhood?) is the necessary glue to stop it and her from tumbling apart - and "I Wish I Was" accomplishes the fitting fusion. Out for the count ("I can hardly move/And I sure can't groove") she slowly wills herself back to facing life and love, not necessarily in that order - the long, verge-of-silent sustains on "afraid" and "say" and "see" in consecutive verses indicate a slow refuelling at an emotional pit stop, each slightly more audible than its predecessor. "Do I know what anything means?" she snaps at one point (to herself, but maybe also to those of us foolish enough to try to interpret her snaps directly). She rifles through talk shows ("not music"), PBS and BBC, doesn't want to meet the press, but the pain will not be subdued, indeed is exacerbated by her hammering self-guilt, and so she has no choice but to escape through the lips of that final, almost triumphant "real" in the line "Is the only thing that is real (viz. "the hunger that I feel")."

The chorus also steadily gets stronger: "I wish I were a singer, a dancer/A dancing for your love" but it's now too strong, Garth Hudson's law marshal piano declaiming its judicial hammer behind her, before finally she relents, and yields, goes past words in a crochet of an intercourse with Chaim Tannenbaum's mandolin; larynx and strings tickling each other like loose pillows in an overstocked bed shop, reacting, caressing, snugly settling, and both have the grain of those feelings too.

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