Martha Wainwright, review: searing songs of heartbreak from a genuine star
Breaking up is hard to do – but real-life rifts, heartaches, healing and hangovers have obviously formed the raw material for generations of brilliant albums, from artists spanning Marvin Gaye to Fleetwood Mac, Robyn and Lorde. Love Will Be Reborn, the recently released sixth LP from Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Martha Wainwright, can also be added to that playlist.
The album reflects on the end of her marriage to her husband of 10 years (and former music producer), and the murky advance of “middle age” – but it’s also receptive to the emergence of something new: Wainwright has wryly described it as her “middle-coming-of-age album”. When she opened her London date with the title song, it sounded like a bittersweet revelation as well as a statement of intent.
While Wainwright has never shied away from baring her soul (or her teeth) on her songs, there was a particular intensity to her latest melodies, given the fragile and fractious territory that they cover. Characteristically chatty and charismatic from the moment she appeared on stage, she joked that this would be a return to “dreadfully autobiographical” songs.
When a voice in the crowd told Wainwright that she looked beautiful, she swiftly returned the compliment, and extended it to the full house: “We all look gorgeous, after what we’ve f***ing been through”. Her singing voice – elegantly folky and plaintive, punkish and spiky – sounded gloriously lucid in this much-loved deconsecrated-church venue. She did indeed look beautiful: a kick-ass storyteller in a floaty floral dress.
Sometimes, Wainwright’s between-song anecdotes would unexpectedly strike a nerve. She recalled the last time she played this stage, when her young son and then husband were alongside her – and then she hit us with the painfully evocative Report Card, a track that relates the anguish of being home alone and apart from her children (“I walk the empty floors, looking through these empty drawers, and everybody knows it’s you that I’m looking for”).
Yet she seemed to be hitting her stride as a songwriter even as life hurtled off the rails, and there were pulse-racing optimistic notes among the highlights, too: the romantic headrush and healing sentiment of Hole In My Heart drew jubilant cheers from the congregation. The warmth and easy-going fluidity of the instrumentation, and the natural rapport between Wainwright and her excellent band, also ensured that the intimacy never felt stifling. When she laid down her acoustic guitar to play piano for the French-language ballad Falaise de Malaise, she couldn’t help dealing a self-deprecating quip about her keyboard skills, yet the performance was captivating.
Wainwright has invariably been introduced in relation to her famous musical parents (Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III) and Grammy-winning brother Rupert, but we were left in no doubt here that she is a singular star. Older tracks from her catalogue were memorably woven into the set-list alongside her latest work: a spirited run-through of Factory (from her self-titled 2005 album), and in the encore following a standing ovation, a devastatingly pretty rendition of Proserpina, a cover of one of her late mother’s final compositions (featured on Wainwright’s 2016 album, Come Home to Mama): a kind of lullaby-myth, blending maternal devotion, grief and rage, with her bandmates gathered around her for close harmonies.
Wainwright gave us a splendid show of strength, as well as searing vulnerability.