Want One? The Latest from Rufus Wainwright, That Is
Consider today’s entry a completion of the look and feel changes I made to the site last weekend. Up for examination is Rufus Wainwright’s third CD, Want One. I got into it partly through Donna’s intervention and partly through a late-night listening experience.
The listening experience happened around this time last year, when I could still easily catch the Liz Copeland show on Wayne State University’s WDET, then broadcast from midnight to 5 a.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday mornings (or, for the time-challenged, Sunday through Thursday nights). On one drunken summer night, I climbed into bed and turned on the radio. I immediately heard another one of her great sets (I describe another in the entry from 8 April), which included two songs by Wainwright. I was in too compromised a state to note anything other than that they were from his new album. I was really surprised to learn that the recordings were by him. After all, I was disappointed when I first heard him because he had been recommended by people who knew of my ardent love for Jeff Buckley’s music. You know, people suggested, “If you love JB, you’ll really dig RW.” And each time I tried listening to the latter, I couldn’t get the comparison out of my head. Wainwright is certainly a great singer, but I was expecting someone who, like Buckley, could also range stylistically over territory that included straight rock, R&B and cabaret. I got only the latter from the Wainwright tunes I heard. Plus, I thought his enunciation was too mushy or slurred (though I don’t mind when I hear something similar from Mark E. Smith of the Fall).
When I was out in California in June, Donna played Wainwright’s first two CDs during a roadtrip. I finally started figuring out what people loved about Wainwright and finding some additional things for myself (the Buckley comparisons still didn’t work for me). Here was someone with a flair for songwriting that seemed to evince deep engagement with everything from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building to more recent, uh, schools. And I had to admit that he really knew how to wring maximum power and expression from his voice. As if those two weren't enough, I found myself liking the arrangements and the production (by Pierre Marchand, who used to do great work on Sarah McLachlan’s recordings—especially Fumbling Towards Ecstasy) as well as Wainwright’s world-weary, literate and sometimes teasing and humorous lyrics. A good example is “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” from Poses. The parallels he finds between the two and the meanings he ascribes them kept a mischievous smile on my face. I was glad that the tune, which starts the album, was reprised at the end.
So, after Donna and I returned to the Bay Area, I spent some time in Amoeba looking for the first two albums. Since they were oddly nowhere to be found, I left without them but did take ten others, including Jim White’s stellar Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See and Wainwright’s Want One. My reaction on hearing the first song on the latter was to exclaim “Wow!” After looking at the credits, I realized that part of the difference was that Wainwright had worked with a different producer: Marius de Vries, who has been widely praised for his work on releases by Björk, Annie Lennox, Craig Armstrong, Neil Finn and Massive Attack. Among the tunes I really like is “Harvester of Hearts,” whose lyrics and plaintive delivery perfectly capture the signifying indirection that communicates more directly than explicitness:
If a person should ever like a person
Then a person should like you
Being that I’m only just a person
What would you do?
If a person should ever like a person
Then a person should like me
Being that you’re only just a person
It must be.
“Vibrate,” a humorous tune with references to both Britney Spears and electroclash, is another of my favorites.
The tunes that really get me, though, are the ones where it sounds as though Wainwright has, at one and the same time, learned to perform as someone communicating emotion rather than miming it and to bring out the dramatic (and melodramatic) in ways that artists like Pink Floyd, Queen and Radiohead have done so well. The campy bombast of the album’s opening track, “Oh What a World,” for example, effectively twists the tried-and-true “whisper to a scream” approach. A whisper to a swoon? And while they hang just on the edge of bad taste, the quotations from Ravel’s Bolero toward the end of that track actually work. The standout selection for me is the one that, as Donna first voiced to me, sounds a lot like Radiohead: “Go or Go Ahead.” The song almost sounds too quiet at the beginning. As Wainwright proceeds through some brilliantly evocative words that explore the frustration and exasperation of a conversation with a (soon-to-be-ex?) partner, the musical arrangement grows simultaneously more loud and more dense. By the time we reach the chorus, Wainwright and the arrangment have opened up. He makes you feel that he actually means it when he sings:
I’ll never know what you’ve shown to other eyes
Go, or go ahead and surprise me
Say you’ve led the way to a mirage
Go, or go ahead and just try me
Everything I ever heard about him being a singer on par with Jeff Buckley finally started to make sense. What he might call his “Maria Callas” moments in this tune, where he elongates the final syllable of a phrase for four bars (as on the words “eyes” and “mirage” above, or on the repetition of the phrase “Forget about the ones that are crying”) are truly breathtaking—no pun intended. (For those with Buckley’s Grace on hand, compare what Buckley does with the word “real” in the ad-libbed portions of “So Real.”)
We’ll soon have the opportunity to listen to all of Want Two, the counterpart to the latest album. Until then, the truly sold and die-hard can hear four of the tunes on the EP Waiting for a Want, available exclusively at the iTunes Music Store. Though it doesn’t mean anything one way or the other, I haven’t heard them yet…