Since word got out that Rufus Wainwright would be working with Mark Ronson and the Dap-Kings on his new album, there’s been virtually no need to speculate on the sound with Wainwright, himself, providing so many descriptors. Radio friendly! Commercial! Sexy! Danceable! These weren’t too surprising, considering both Ronson’s past work and Wainwright’s facility at shifting gears from theatrical pomp to barroom balladry to thoroughly modern pop.
If Out of the Game fails to live up to Wainwright’s early appraisals, it’s only because he didn’t qualify them enough. There are, indeed, some songs here that would sound amazing on the radio if ’70s hits stations were to accept new submissions. It is arguably commercial, but only in light of Wainwright’s most recent major musical projects, the dark, understated All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu and the opera Prima Donna. It’s occasionally sexy in a way that adults in loving relationships may recognize, which is to say probably distinctly un-sexy by contemporary pop music standards. As for danceable, remember that this is the guy who once sang, “I tried to dance Britney Spears / I guess I’m getting on in years”, so your mileage may vary. One could probably manage a respectable waltz for “Respectable Dive”, there’s a slight techno pulse to “Bitter Tears”, and there’s a little more roll in his baroque’n’roll, overall, but it’s hard to imagine any of this going over in a club in 2012.
There’s nothing wrong with Rufus just being Rufus, though. Wainwright is one of those artists whose early work still sounds every bit as accomplished as his next release, and it’s all driven by a personality big enough to perform a Judy Garland live album in its entirety and pull it off. So if Ronson’s involvement doesn’t grant Out of the Game too many surprises, chalk it up to an unshakeable personal aesthetic. As if to underscore the point, Wainwright and Ronson resurrect several old, unrecorded songs, including the Beatles-by-way-of-Imperial Bedroom march “Welcome to the Ball”, and they fit right in. Thus the only real concern is whether Out of the Game is a good Rufus Wainwright album. It is. In fact, it’s his best since 2003’s ornate Want One.
Keep in mind that this is a slightly more buttoned-down Rufus Wainwright than the hungry romantic of his debut and Poses or the alternately flirty and regretful cynic of the Want albums. These are songs about friends, family and long-term partners, and Wainwright lets us know up front what he thinks of those pretty young things living the fast life he once led. “Look at you suckers”, he sings on the opener and title track. “Does your mama know what you’re doing?” Not that settling down comes with zero reservations (“Say, come over here / Let me smell you for one last time / Before you go out there / And ruin all the world, once mine”), but Wainwright’s a family man now.
Speaking of family, Rufus properly inducts baby daughter Viva into the Wainwright tradition of songs-about-relations on the lilting “Montauk”. Perhaps knowing what it’s like to have embarrassment thrust upon oneself in infancy via his father’s famously incorrect “Rufus is a Tit Man”, Wainwright spares his daughter the indignity and charmingly makes light of himself and his fiancé instead: “One day you will come to Montauk and see your dad wearing a kimono / And see your other dad pruning roses / Hope you won’t turn around and go”. But Wainwright has seldom been one to leave it at “cute”, and, by the last verse, he’s managed to turn this little premonition into a sad, loving memorial to his late mother, eloquently connecting Kate McGarrigle to her granddaughter in song. Naturally, his mother merits her own tribute, as well, the contemplative closer, “Candles”, tellingly layered with McGarrigle’s primary instrument, the accordion, and concluded with a mournful bagpipe salute.
Largely, though, Wainwright keeps things light on Out of the Game. Even when he’s fighting with a stubborn lover on “Jericho”, the argument floats on the soft rhythmic bump and orchestral padding of prime, poppy Elton John. And, more often than not, these songs have happy endings. The lean, electronic “Bitter Tears” may start with him choking on the same, but “In discussing with the morning, everything’s gonna be okay”, and, on the sprightly, stuttering “Perfect Man”, he spins a fractured, lovesick narrative, but resolves to make “all of the roses bloom in unison”. He coats the “You’ve Got a Friend” sentiment offered to “Barbara” in organic, blue-eyed soul a la Hall & Oates vintage 1975, and crashes “Rashida”‘s party with Queen-esque holds and a buzzy guitar lead that might make you momentarily misread that producer credit as “Mick” Ronson.
The only major fumble on Out of the Game is in the sequencing. “Candles” is the natural closer here, but Wainwright and Ronson start winding things down two songs earlier. Starting with “Sometimes You Need”, a fine mixed-feelings ode to L.A. with a Sean Lennon assist on guitar, and continuing through the uncharacteristically straightforward “Song of You”, the tempos dip and the subjects get progressively heavy and heartfelt.
It’s a small complaint, however, especially considering Out of the Game in light of Wainwright’s darker work of late. He may not have made good on all of his predictions for what this album would be, but maybe it’s for the best. Who needs another collection of radio-friendly, commercial, sexy, danceable pop songs, when there’s this great new Rufus Wainwright album?