Both songs remind you you’re listening to a New Yorker, which Ms. Wainwright has been for a decade now. “New York has become safer, and like many people say, it has as a result lost its edge in some ways. But it’s still a hard place to live through the daily grind, and my music speaks to that, to how people live in a city."
“Comin’ Tonight” turns back a smidge to Ms. Wainwright’s roots, yet instead of the plaintive, lone singer-songwriter, we get triumphal country-rock, belted out with immense bravura and a terrific, robust backing. On the tracks that follow Wainwright traverses a number of styles, from the hissing drum machine and spacey synths on “Jesus and Mary,” with its idiosyncratic phrasings, perhaps in homage to Leonard Cohen, one of her heroes, to the loping, music hall/carnival inflection of “Tower Song,” to the hushed anguish of “Hearts Club Band,” where she channels Mr. Cohen again in verse and soars several octaves for the chorus.
Ms. Wainwright has a gift for quickly turning a lyric from a promise to a threat, a fantasy to an all-too-real disaster, and her words are helped along by her sly rasp (itself helped along by the smokes and booze, no doubt), yet for all the wit here, the album loses its way for a few songs near its middle, before returning on the rumbling “The George Song,” with its aw-shucks guitar breakdowns and a familiar voice backing up Martha: Rufus. Ms. Wainwright admitted that her brother is her "greatest mentor," even as she seeks to distinguish herself from his baroque, epic pop.
A number of other esteemed guests brighten the album, including Pete Townshend sitting in on electric guitar, Donald Fagen on synths, the Band’s Garth Hudson on keyboards. Even the album art gets a famous name in renowned photographer Sam Taylor-Wood.
“Townsend and the rest are friends,” she explained, “and while I was preparing the album I bounced things off them, so at one point I was on London hanging out with Pete, so I just said ‘How about playing together?’ ”
And this is one of the tough things for Ms. Wainwright. She grew up singing and playing with her family, so communality is integral to her idea of making music, yet the balance between the artist and her co-conspirators is a tough one to play hen the names carry so much heft, much less when the name is the same as your own.
“I’m not that virtuosic, and I think that the musicians I surround myself with should be given space," she said. "I write songs alone and my songs are very personal, but I like to share them with other musicians.”
Over the past few years her list of collaborations is impressive, from a Royal Opera House production of Brecht and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, tribute concerts for Mr. Cohen and Syd Barrett, and even a trip to Mali as part of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project. At Wainwright’s fall wedding to her bassist and producer Brad A
lbetta, guest performers included Emmylou Harris, Linda Thompson, Ed Harcourt, and of course the whole clan of family singers.
Inspired by such collaborative projects come two songs: “Niger River” is a delicate ode, the only strictly personal song on the album, devoted to Wainwright’s recent groom and her thoughts of him while in Africa. The spare cover of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” came out of an arrangement at the Barrett tribute, and the version here is a family affair, with Wainwright’s mother, her aunt, her cousin, and her husband.
“I really wanted my mom on the record, and she plays the Wurlitzer, while Brad is on drums, so it was a nice family afternoon. We made sandwiches!” she laughed. Yet the cover, a spare and simple reinterpretation of Syd Barrett’s 1967 confection, feels all Martha, distinctly her own, without a nod or a wink or a look behind her at all.
Musing again on the ideas behind the album, Wainwright laid bare her true ambitions, beyond the washer and dryer, in terms of crafting both an artistic and a personal identity that can stand the rigors of the market, of fans, of criticism, and stand all of that without the buttress of any legacy, and history, and name. “I wanted a record to represent my time. It was a nod to the last two years of my life, when I’ve been in a more peaceful place with myself as an artist. So I felt like pulling my eyes away from my own navel, and finding my wings in some way, to fly.