In G.W. Pabst’s film Pandora’s Box, Louise Brooks played the beautiful and doomed Lulu, and in the process, created an icon. Rufus Wainwright has titled his sixth studio album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu in homage to the character, and the listener does not require a deep delve into his bio to see why. Widely considered beautiful and doomed himself since his debut a dozen years ago, Wainwright knows the subject matter of the tragic heroine intimately.
The Canadian singer-songwriter has been exceedingly busy for the past few years. While pop stars becoming multi-hyphenates is nothing new, Wainwright’s projects are a lot more ambitious than a guest spot on Gossip Girl or a fragrance launch. Instead of an eponymous line of clothing at Topshop, our Rufus decided to write an opera (in French, no less). He’s mounting productions in Canada as well as the UK (while hinting feverishly that New York will not be far behind), and he is still working with American theatre director Robert Wilson on an adaptation of Wilson’s Shakespeare’s Sonette. Three of the tracks on All Days Are Nights, “When Most I Wink”, “A Woman’s Face”, and “Shame”, are the Bard’s sonnets set to music, written for Wilson’s Berlin production last year. The album also features Wainwright’s rendition of his own aria from Prima Donna, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent”. All of this is in addition to his ongoing work on his recovery from drug addiction, which he discusses with candor as a major focal point of his life.
All Days Are Nights was written and recorded largely during the period that Wainwright’s mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, was dying of cancer. Released just months after her passing, the album has a somber and elegiac feel, punctuated with brief respites of humor. “So Sad With What I Have” takes up residence next to “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now”, a tastefully bitchy skewering of the critic who eviscerated the first staging of Prima Donna (which, I fully admit, gives me a perverse hope that if I slate an artist viciously enough, maybe he’ll immortalize me in song). Despite being culled from different projects, far from feeling like a smorgasbord, the songs are undoubtedly all of a piece. The through line seems to be this sense of mourning the woman who imbued him with his “show-must-go-on” ethos in the first place.
Wainwright’s last record, 2007’s Release the Stars, was his most pop-oriented to date, as evidenced by his choice to use Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant as executive producer. And Wainwright has said that he wanted to make this piano-and-voice record as a sort of “sorbet between courses” before he delivers audiences “the next big assault”. It is telling that he views his work in terms of his whole discography rather than stand-alone pieces. It is the mindset one would expect from someone who performs in a coat with a 17-foot train designed by Michael Jackson’s costumer.
Of course, much as we don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a quaint bed-and-breakfast, we don’t go to Rufus Wainwright looking for John Denver. It is drama we seek and drama we get — emotional spectacle of the highest order. Nowhere is this better typified than “The Dream”, which has become the most anticipated “Will-he-pull-it-off?” moment in his live show. Five-and-a-half minutes of slowly building catharsis, the song puts Wainwright’s vocal and musical prowess to the test. The drama, however, never devolves into melodrama, and one of Wainwright’s singular gifts is how endearing he is in his egoism. In “Zebulon”, he sings “My mother’s in the hospital / My sister’s at the opera / I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it”, always bringing the song back around to (you guessed it) himself. His narcissism is as much a part of his charm as his incredible voice, his piano, his lyrical skill, and that 17-foot train. And we wouldn’t have him any other way. Still beautiful, hopefully a little less doomed, and always iconic.