- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

Rufus Wainwright

“Want One”

Dreamworks Records

Rufus Wainwright’s own mother, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, once described her son’s songs as “somewhere over the top.” There they remain on Mr. Wainwright’s third album, the newly released “Want One.”

Many contemporary musicians make a big public show of their musical explorations — dabbling in everything from full-blown orchestral arrangements to stripped-down folk music. These explorations usually result in albums that seem forced and inorganic. They have the faint reek of desperation. Mr. Wainwright, in contrast, draws and blends naturally from an almost uniquely disparate range of wellsprings, including classical music, show tunes, standards, rock ‘n’ roll and, of course, the folk tradition that is his birthright. (In addition to his famous folk-singer mother, Mr. Wainwright’s father is the acclaimed singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III.) He manages to synthesize these widely varied influences without losing any of his individuality.

Mr. Wainwright emerged as a critic’s darling and beloved cult figure on the release of his eponymous first album in 1998. His talents were undeniable, even if his somewhat sour worldview and overwrought performance style were not everybody’s cup of tea. “Poses,” the follow-up, scaled back on the in-your-face eclecticism that marked the first album, but that only threw into even starker relief his boldly confessional lyrics, which revealed an artist slipping into despair and addiction.

Indeed, after hitting bottom last year, Mr. Wainwright underwent a well-publicized, monthlong rehabilitation at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota. Upon his release and return to New York City, the clean and sober Mr. Wainwright teamed up with producer Marius deVries (Bjork, Madonna, Bowie) and began a period of uncharacteristically undistracted productivity that resulted in more than 30 finished songs.

“Want One” collects 14 of those songs and shows Mr. Wainwright more musically exuberant than ever as he relates the tale of his sordid decline and recovery with unflinching honesty. (“Want Two,” due later this year, contains the more challenging recordings from those sessions.) “One” is incredibly dense, and the radio-ready hooks are few and far between, but repeated listenings yield numerous highlights.

“Oh What a World,” the first song, is a spare and circular incantation of ennui that, like many of the album’s songs, builds slowly, adding layers of vocal and orchestral flourishes until reaching a mildly dissonant and disorienting crescendo (here with the jarring interpolation of Ravel’s “Bolero”). “Vicious World,” a song about the awfulness of life, is Martian-colony cocktail lounge music, complete with space-alien Beach Boys harmonies. The chugging “Movies of Myself” builds to a Spector-esque wall of sound while Mr. Wainwright throws his voice recklessly around the beat, sounding like a long-lost Travelling Willbury cousin.

“Go or Go Ahead,” the album’s grandest statement, is a spare and elegant evocation of the small, internal wars people are constantly fighting — with God, with lovers, with themselves. Here, Mr. Wainwright’s sometimes excessive vocal histrionics are used to spellbinding, harrowing effect. (“I’ll never know what you have shown to other eyes. Go, or go ahead and surprise me.”)

There are lighter moments as well. “Vibrate,” a quiet little love poem with meticulous orchestral and choral arrangements, provides welcome dynamic counterpoint to the album’s overall intensity. In the upbeat “14th Street,” a swaggering bit of music-hall Americana, the singer gives a high-spirited musical finger to ex-lovers as he makes his triumphant return to Lower Manhattan. (“Why’d you have to break all my heart, couldn’t you have saved a minor part?”) “Beautiful Child,” an odd piece of acid-house gospel, juxtaposes an apocalyptic musical backdrop with a call-and-response vocal arrangement convincingly illustrating the redemptive power of perseverance.

Like a John Lennon piano ballad, the title song, “Want,” moves slowly yet inexorably, gaining strength as it unfolds. Providing mostly a litany of things he doesn’t want, the singer finally comes clean in the song’s final lines: “I just want to know if something’s coming for to get me. Tell me, will you make me sad or happy? And will you settle for love, will you settle for love?”

“Want One” is an amazing piece of work; not only Mr. Wainwright’s strengths, but also his flaws are fully on display. The orchestrations, though ingenious, are apt to overwhelm, rather than enhance, the underlying emotions of the songs. And though Mr. Wainwright has a remarkable voice, too often he just lets it fly, singing in fifth gear when the subtleties of first or second gear would be more appropriate to the material. (Many of the most thrilling moments on “Want One” are its most unadorned — just Mr. Wainwright’s voice and keyboards.)

Mr. Wainwright’s susceptibility to the melodramatic mars the record with a disquieting streak of self-absorption, as if Mr. Wainwright found his every thought and feeling somehow worthy of a full-blown orchestral moment. The humor and irony that artists from Morrissey to Bryan Ferry shrewdly use to give listeners some emotional breathing room are hard to detect in Mr. Wainwright’s work. It’s there, but his sense of wit is drier than the virtual martinis he conjures in the album’s more loungey set pieces.

Mr. Wainwright is a fearless communicator with a natural fluency in an astonishing number of musical languages. Though he’s just 30, his accomplishments are already ridiculously impressive, and his potential is virtually limitless. This earns him the benefit of the doubt, and besides, there is more than a little charm to be found in his excesses. Sure, he may be a little too serious about his work, but that’s almost refreshing in our age of the exculpatory artistic wink.

Philip Shelley is a musician and free-lance writer living in Manhattan.

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