Martha Wainwright

Come Home To Mama

"Can we pretend we’re talking?" asks Martha Wainwright on her new album’s standout track, ‘All Your Clothes’. "I thought I could donate your clothes to a theatre / Where they would make up a wardrobe of a great play of characters," she whispers over a heartbeat rhythm on a lyric that captures an imagined conversation between Wainwright and her late mother, Kate McGarrigle. It’s an utterly heartbreaking listen but a joyously beautiful song that perfectly encapsulates Wainwright’s best album to date.

Indeed Come Home To Mama is the first release of her own compositions since 2008’s bullish I Know You Are Married But I’ve Got Feelings To and every note of every song was inspired by two key events in Martha Wainwright’s life. In November 2009, she gave birth to her first child in London. After a difficult and life-threatening labour, her son, Arcangelo, spent the first few weeks of his life in an incubator. During that period, 3,000 miles away in Montreal, McGarrigle entered the finals stages of her battle against cancer – she died in January 2010. Martha Wainwright became a mother and lost her mother in the space of two months.

So, it’s perhaps surprising that Come Home To Mama is neither a downbeat nor introspective collection of songs; instead, it roller-coasts around grief, anger, humour and hope. The ass-shakin’ ‘I Wanna Make An Arrest’ is positively funky and if Wainwright has rarely sounded as wearied as when she sings "As I get angrier I get older / And I’ve got less and less people to complain to" on the sophisticated noir-rock of ‘Can You Believe It’, Come Home To Mama is a hugely compelling listen. The complexities of Wainwright’s emotions – the grief of losing her mother mingled with the joy, anxiety and strain of becoming a new mother herself – are played out with a steel-rimmed honesty and a fistful of fine songs.

Undoubtedly, the centrepiece of the album is a cover version. ‘Proserpina’ was written by Kate McGarrigle in the weeks before she died and tells the story of the Roman goddess Ceres. McGarrigle performed the song during her very last concert at the Royal Albert Hall in December 2009. ‘Proserpina’ is wonderfully elegant and written concisely by someone acutely aware of the precious nature of time.

I interviewed Martha recently for The Quietus and she talked about her desire to maintain her mother’s legacy. This ‘updated’ version of ‘Proserpina’ is stunning – a mixture of poise and anguish. When Wainwright sings the repeated refrain "come home to mama" – written by her dying mother while Wainwright was thousands of miles away and unable to be with her – it’s as if there is a Hadron Collider of emotion smashing together particles of grief and guilt. The result feels very primal – the overwhelming need of a mother to protect her child.

As if acutely aware of the feminine power locked within the songs, Wainwright sought out a female producer – Yuka C. Honda of Cibo Matto fame – for the album as opposed to her usual foil of husband Brad Albetta. Martha told me that the writing of Come Home To Mama was "as much as I could do" and that Honda was "responsible for pretty much everything else." And Honda is a worthy task-bearer – she’s finessed the songs with a twinkling musicality performed by a stellar cast; Wilco’s Nels Cline adds textured guitar while Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett provides squelchy synths on the slinky ‘Some People’ as well as twinkling piano on several other tracks.

But, critically, Honda always allows Wainwright’s vocal to take centre stage. And Come Home To Mama showcases her dextrous tone and extraordinary range. On ‘Proserpina’ she performs an almost primal ululation of grief, while on the driving opener ‘I Am Sorry’ she moves between coquette and accuser within a single breath. Wainwright has a rare gift – the ability to sing from the very core of her soul. It’s an exceptional performance.

The final track is almost too much. The lyric to the gorgeous ballad ‘Everything’s Wrong’ could be interpreted as Kate McGarrigle speaking to her daughter. When Wainwright sings "My husband has been lying and cheating / I turned my cheek and reason" it could allude to her mother’s torrid relationship with Loudon Wainwright III. And perhaps the line "I will try to stay alive / To see as much through your eyes" are the words of a dying woman desperate to help her daughter through the first months of motherhood. Or, it could be that Wainwright is actually singing the song to her young son, as a whispered commitment to a life of nurturing.

Either way, the maternal bond is deep, unbroken and life-affirming. This is an album about a mother’s love, made by a mother, for a mother. And it also happens to be Martha Wainwright’s greatest artistic achievement to date.

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