Songs for Lulu features Wainwright alone at his piano — where, on previous records, the Canadian songwriter has mostly been as part of sprawling pop ensembles. His prodigious playing here is colored with elongated patterns (such as the barreling “Who Are You New York?”) and his own pet phrasings (“Sad with What I Have”).
The production is spare, but the emotions are heavy: “Martha,” named for his sister, deals with their ailing mother, folk icon Kate McGarrigle (who has since passed); “Zebulon” is an intimate inquiry into personal freedom. At times, Wainwright’s starkness and sensitivity recall Harry Nilsson (e.g., “Daddy’s Song”), but without the biting irony.
Lulu can also drift into a more casual, Gershwin-esque mode — perfect for serving hors d’œuvre in your New York City brownstone (“True Loves”) — but these songs (which include settings of three Shakespeare sonnets) are so well-tempered with raw, emotional moments that the album never seems dour or austere. On the contrary, this is one of his most personal, sanguine releases.