The brilliant modern songwriter Rufus Wainwright creates a blend of elegance and emotional content on this glorious album.
We should be listening to The Black and White Album right now.
Pleading emotional and (more importantly) financial exhaustion following the fabulously craven extravagance of the two Want records, Rufus Wainwright let it be known that he intended his next release to be something a bit more off-Broadway.
No more flutes, he promised, no more flugel horns, no more orchestral tributes to Ravel and Gershwin, no more massed choirs.
His next set of material, he promised, would be much smaller and more intimate in scale, and would need nothing more than a piano to add shade to the picture. It was to be a stark affair. Stark as its title.
Well, Rufus the Baptist he may be, but confronted by the dazzling splendour of Release The Stars, from this moment forth we should hesitate before believing a word Mr. Wainwright says, because this is anything but a barren record. In fact it’s as warm and forgiving and generously tender a collection of songs as you’ll hear all year.
Up until now, Wainwright has brilliantly exploited the unique position he occupies at the high table of many musical styles and traditions. As part of the extended McGarrigle clan, for example, his grounding in communal folk values can be seen reflected in the number of cameo appearances he has made on other artist’s records (from sister Martha, to Antony Hegarty and Burt Bacharach). His touring schedule has suggested he’s inherited his dad’s sleeves-up approach to the singer-songwriter life. And from album sleeves to the religious right baiting ‘Gay Messiah’, it’s clear that a subtle but definite queercore aesthetic informs the work.
His career to date has seen him skip merrily between these bases – jumping from the lush piano balladry of ‘Poses’ or ‘Dinner At Eight’ to the ragtime exuberance of ‘14th St’; from the shimmering electro of ‘Waiting For A Dream’, to the baroque stylings of ‘Little Sister’. And the impression has been of a prodigiously gifted young man gorging himself furiously on a range of styles and genres.
However, for the first time, on Release The Stars we find him pausing for breath.
It’s no secret that the chaotic nature of much of Rufus’s earlier work took its lead from the mania of his private life. That hysteria is absent here.
In fact, this is very clearly a love album. Or, at the very least, an album preoccupied by notions of love.
The thunderous opening track ‘Do I Disappoint You’ (which Martha swoops through like a harpy), is perhaps the most discordant song here. But in the record’s overall scheme, its role is clear as a laying down of the law (“Do I disappoint you in just being human?/And not one of the elements that you can light your cigar on”).
The string sections and classical pop chops could see Rufus sidelined as a fey romantic (and there’s a certain McCartney-esque quality to ‘Rules And Regulations’), but here the emphasis is on truth and the casting off of destructive illusions. Rufus, it seems, wants to cast a cold eye on love.
The point is made clear on ‘Going To A Town’, a seethingly beautiful ballad Neil Young might have been proud to include on Harvest:
“Do you really think you go to hell for having loved/….After soaking the body of Jesus Christ in blood/I’m so tired of you America”.
His first transatlantic number one if there’s any justice.
Then there’s ‘Leaving For Paris’, which sounds as bereft as one of those spectral laments Frank Sinatra essayed on For Only The Only.
The classical architecture of the song writing is unmistakable, but the sentiments informing the tunes are clearly contemporary.
However, this does not mean that the album is depressing. If anything, it provides a stronger base for its dizzying emotional lift-off.
“I’m tired of writing elegies to boredom,” sings Rufus during the lilting Tropicalismo-does-Disney flag-waver ‘Sans Souci’, “I’m tired of writing elegies in general”.
Release The Stars gives good ode.
Take ‘Nobody’s Off The Hook’ – a tender tribute to his friendship with Teddy Thompson (“Who would have ever thought/Hanging with a homo and a hairdresser/You would become the one desired in every woman’s heart”) – or ‘Between My Legs’, on which Teddy’s dad Richard lends some spiky (apparently Franz Ferdinand inspired) guitar to a song offering sanctuary and refuge.
Then there’s the naughty ‘Tulsa’, which, legend now has it, is about the happily married Brandon Flowers and how, according to Rufus, he tastes “of potato chips in the morning”.
Whether Cheese and Onion or Smokey Bacon, our narrator refuses to elaborate.
Nor does he hint at the celebrity subject of the burlesque title-track. The fearful public figure, nursing a secret that’s ruining his/her life.
“Oh can’t you see all the good that celebrity can do for those in the dark”.
But the song doesn’t hector – like so many of the other songs here; it’s an outstretched hand of solidarity.
Wainwright is a brilliant songwriter. There are times on this record when the elegance and emotional content of the material blend in ways that call to mind the great Bacharach and David/Dionne Warwick collaborations of the mid ‘60s.
But he’s also a brilliantly modern songwriter. And thankfully, it isn’t a black and white world he inhabits. It’s glorious Technicolour.
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