[30 April 2012]
Out of the Game begins with the banal title track whereby Wainwright decries any form of humility he might have once had. In a finger-wagging declaration, Wainwright places some pretty needless judgment on a younger generation of gay men who, according to him, seem to lack any sense of moral decency. All irony, of course, is lost on this continuously hailed “songwriting genius”, for lest we forget the “gay hell” he declared himself in the middle of during the time between Poses and Want One? It could be rationalized that with this title track Wainwright is indeed pointing the finger inwardly, but to those I simply say: have a listen to the rest of the album. Rather than introspective and reflective songs about his current state, Out of the Game is filled with self-pitying tunes over the realization that he might not be as cool as he once was, sung with the expectation that his audience will relate and empathize with how miserable he feels now that he’s not being invited that often to movie stars’ homes, or that he can’t compete with younger, hotter gay men, or that he has to figure out how to have a meaningful relationship with his child—all of this culminating in a melodramatic tune about trying to “figure it all out”.
Ever since Rufus Wainwright launched onto the scene as a critical darling (let’s not kid ourselves that he’s succeeded at any kind of commercial success to the same caliber of most other pop stars), everyone considered him to be a genius, this author included. His self-titled debut is surely one of the best pop records ever to grace the saturated music scene. Surprisingly, when everyone believed he wouldn’t be able to top himself, he released an even more impressive follow-up. Could this musical mastermind do no wrong? Well, yes he could. The somewhat disappointing Want One began to reveal signs that perhaps Wainwright was stretching himself a little thin. However, all could be forgiven because trapped somewhere within Want One and Want Two is a great record.
More importantly, what’s becoming very apparent is that all the critical praise and adoring fans are shooting straight to Wainwright’s already pretty massive ego. Very few “new” artists would dare to release a two-parter double album as their third release, coupled with a self-praising “documentary” of exactly why Wainwright is just so great. And I don’t believe that ANYONE has ever released an absolutely insulting and obscene 19-disc comprehensive boxset listed at over $400 USD, with as little as an album’s worth of new material, so early into one’s career. Although there are some amusing moments in the last six years (I can appreciate the kitsch of reimagining Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance), most often than not, one would have to shake their head at the logic behind releasing such self-ingratiating material that did nothing to suggest some kind of critical view into this songwriter’s process, other than to simply declare him a brilliant man. And if that wasn’t enough, come on down to Toronto on June 10th when Mr. Wainwright will be giving a free concert following a lineup of lesser known Canadian singer/songwriters singing his songs. That’s right, he has essentially setup a tribute concert to himself. All of this ego-inflation and self-adoration, without a hint of humility or irony, leads us to his most ridiculous and worst album to date: Out of the Game.
Some may be struck by this record’s lack of grandiosity (and even deign to consider this a good thing), Game is quite simply a boring mess of an album that showcases Wainwright at his laziest. Somewhere along the way, he started to believe that the level of effort he put into classics like “April Fools”, “Gay Messiah” or “The Tower of Learning” wasn’t necessary anymore—that with two masterful albums under his belt, he was somehow exempt from applying any effort to his songwriting at all. Out of the Game is plagued with MOR production techniques that in no way try to spruce up the banality of his tired and retread melodic structures. There are vague leanings of a 70s R&B/pop record here, but the complete lack of commitment in this direction make the injection of cheap synthesizers and soulful backing vocals feel odd and out of place.
The album’s second track “Jericho”, one of the few tracks to provide a glimmer of hope that Wainwright hasn’t completely phoned it in, begins with an intriguing opening verse: “I keep thinking that you are going to change / I keep thinking that you are going to re-arrange / But I’m a fool to think / Something so impossible”, which eventually erupts into this ostentatious blast of backing vocals, thus ruining a perfectly nice song. This technique of peaking throughout random illogical moments of any given song is a running theme throughout the album. Screams of “Oh NO!!” (in “Jericho) or “Suckers!” (in “Out of the Game”) or the ridiculously jarring faux-operatic scream near to the end of “Rashida” seem to suggest that Wainwright is preoccupied with waking up his audience and fooling them into thinking this record is more varied and involved than it actually is. This crescendo effect has been employed by Wainwright time and time again to much better effect in the past (see: “Ups and Downs”), so its overuse here feels tired and uninspired. Out of the Game at worst feels like the backing music to an episode of Love Boat, a random, often times peppy, amalgamation of Muzak sounds and melodies that drudge up imagery of the elite upper-class yachting in the early 80s. At best, the album is an easy listening soft-rock companion piece to the equally underwhelming Release the Stars.
Aside from the album being horribly arranged, there is really very little that producer Mark Ronson has to work with. Verses and choruses remain flatlined with very few peaks or valleys (aside from the occasional scream from oddly placed backing vocals as mentioned above), to the point that you might mistake this for a less involved Norah Jones album. Lyrically, Wainwright seems to be on par with the caliber of material he’s released since Release the Stars (with the glaring exception of the beautiful All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu). Instead of beautifully poetic lines such as “Oh tell me can you see it? / The gentle tower rising / Over the pines, out of a book / Zion mistaken for the state of Millbrook”, we are beset with lines like “One day you will come to Montauk and see your dad playing the piano / and see your other dad wearing glasses / hope that you will want to stay / for awhile.” What!? Understandably, the song is a rumination on the future reality of the relationship he will have with his child, but considering how beautifully poetic he’s managed to articulate relationships with family members in previous efforts, “Montauk” feels like a let down. And this isn’t to say that the lyrics throughout Game are irreconcilably bad, but they are not to the standard Mr. Wainwright has set with the first half of his career.
The MOR style of Out of the Game is a somewhat different approach than previous efforts for Wainwright however, this “difference” is not something that should necessarily be celebrated. Having an MOR style is not quite the superlative that others are granting it. I don’t believe that anyone would truly want Rufus to take this route. Who would want a charismatic and outrageous songwriter to take on a style which ultimately stifles and mutes all that made him so endearing and wonderful? Although there are occasional moments of pleasantness (“Sometimes You Need”, “Barbara” and “Perfect Man” are fairly nice), there is nothing here that would sit well alongside some of Rufus’ best work, nor would it compare to some of Rufus’ average work—and this is the first time in his incredibly short career where this claim can be made. Perhaps a good dose of artistic failure might re-ignite the fire under this over-inflated songwriter who has been coasting on the fact that everyone will pretty much love whatever he releases, Out of the Game being no exception.