Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game (take one)

Wainwright doesn't quite make good on all of his predictions for this collaboration with producer Mark Ronson. He does, however, make the best Rufus Wainwright album in years.

Rufus Wainwright

Out of the Game

US Release: 2012-05-01
Canada Release: 2012-04-24
Label: Decca
UK Release: 2012-04-23
Artist website

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?


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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