I suppose that’s a funny statement to make about a guy who recently penned an opera in French, but it’s true.
Fault him for overestimating the public’s appetite for his brand of flamboyant pop cabaret but make no mistake… he writes hook-laden music for the masses and he’d be absolutely thrilled to land an album or a song high on the charts.
And that’s what makes his latest release, his sixth full-length album, such a surprise. All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu is a collection of 12 songs featuring just piano and voice — none of the elaborate orchestration, children’s choirs or instrumental mish-mash that made his previous albums such busy delights.
The album, which borrows the first half of its title from a Shakespearean sonnet, was written and recorded during a period when Wainwright’s mother, singer Kate McGarrigle, was dying of cancer, and it reflects that melancholy mood throughout. McGarrigle died in January, just two months before the record’s release.
The best songs on the album address her illness directly. ‘Martha’ takes the form of an answering machine message left for his sister and is one of the more poignant songs here (it boasts one of the strongest melodies as well):
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other
Martha, it’s your brother calling
Have you had a chance to see father?
Wondering how he’s doing and
There’s not much time for us to really be that angry at each other
It’s your brother calling, Martha
Please call me back
Album closer ‘Zebulon’ also takes the form of a message, this time a letter catching up with an old friend Wainwright recalled once while walking from his mother’s hospital room back to his childhood home in Montreal.
What you doing in this song?
Skating on the ice of song
About to go under
My mother’s in the hospital
My sister’s at the opera
I’m in love but let’s not talk about it
There’s so much to tell you
Those are the only direct references to his mother’s condition, but all of All Days Are Nights is steeped in sadness. These are songs about lost loves and dashed dreams.
Also included are musical interpretations of three Shakespearean sonnets (#10, 20 and 43) that Wainwright conceived for another project. They fit in nicely here, grouped in the center of the album, like the loveliest lesson in an English literature class.
He also throws in ‘Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,’ an aria from the opera (Prima Donna) he wrote and staged in Paris in July 2009. You can see why I say this is his least accessible album…
But despite the somber tone, the French and the Old English, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu is a remarkably easy listen. Wainwright’s melodies are as sublime as ever and his piano playing is simply gorgeous. His voice has been the subject of much debate on this blog, but for those like me who see his vocals as one of his strong suits, he is in particularly fine form here.
That said, this is the album I’ll likely reach for last when I want to hear Wainwright. I prefer the flamboyance and aim-for-the-stars audacity of his other work to this delicate, sorrowful collection. This album conveys a mood, and it fits a mood, while albums such as Poses and Want One run the gamut of human emotions.
And I’m sure Wainwright wouldn’t mind that at all. He wrote and recorded this album for himself… despite the bucketloads of personality on his previous records, I see this as his first truly personal work. That alone makes it a fascinating and rewarding addition to his impressive catalog.