Life after Sept. 11 was a period of self-realization for singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. “I’d hit that age where I was either gonna go down one path and self-destruct or go down the other path and survive,” the 30-year-old explained. “I had to really look at my life and figure out what sustains me.” Wainwright’s latest album is the fruit of this self-evaluation, a synthesis of what he wants.
The lush, cinematic feel of the album fits for someone trying to sum up his life and his desires. Plus, Wainwright’s drama queen tendencies are even stronger when used in hindsight.
Indeed, he pokes fun at himself in the song “Movies of Myself,” demanding the clich? scenario, “Wrap your loving arms around me as the cold winds blow.” But, while a romantic, theatrical vibe is characteristic of Wainwright’s music (witness “Matinee Idol” from his self-titled album), “Want One” definitely takes home the Academy Award – it’s a bizarre mix between an orchestra concert and a folk-rock opera (if there is such a thing).
Take the first track, “Oh What a World,” which I can’t stop listening to. It opens with a plodding, authoritative tuba that contrasts well with Wainwright’s angelic humming. Before you know it, the flutes are trilling, the cymbals are crashing and the orchestra has launched into Ravel’s “Bolero” while Rufus sings, “Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline: ‘Life is Beautiful’ in the New York Times.”
Wainwright’s heavy classical influences are present throughout the entire album, although electronic programming is sometimes added to the mix (i.e. “Vicious World”). Additionally, the more familiar rock ‘n’ roll wails and thumps of the electric guitar, bass and drums are perfectly suited to the surging climax and refrain of “Go or Go Ahead.”
However, “14th Street” is an example of over-the-top production. While the main question of the song “Why’d you have to break all my heart? Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?” may be charming enough, it grows tedious and more annoying with each repetition – the overwhelming brass and cloying backup vocals don’t help the situation, either.
In fact, some of my favorite songs are the quiet ballads. In “Pretty Things,” Wainwright purrs innocently, “Pretty lies, so what if I like pretty lies?” while a piano plays haltingly in the background. This simple arrangement allows his rich, quavering and altogether unmistakable voice to take center stage.
Lyrically, Wainwright has shifted from the carefree, optimistic energy of his earlier albums to a more subdued tone. Here, we find him coming to terms with growing older, but still unabashed about feeling needy and vulnerable. Wainwright sings about unrequited love and yearning with his gentle sense of humor (“My phone’s on vibrate for you”) and a gift for subtle yet arresting imagery (“You walk alone like a baby unborn.”)
Overall, “Want One” provides satisfaction to Wainwright fans and a refreshing surprise for those looking for something new. But, Rufus isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If, for example, you’re looking for some party music, I suggest that you stick to 50’s instead.