I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time. Firstly, how else could I grab his rendition of “Hallelujah” except by grabbing the Shrek soundtrack, which is not high on my list of things to do or own? More importantly, though, Rufus Wainwright solidified himself as one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the ’00s after “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” graced my ears. He came off as a singer-songwriter who sang instead of whispered or whimpered like his contemporaries (what a notion, huh?). Still, it pains me to say that none of his albums are filler-free.
As with every “Best of” compilation, there are certain inclusions and exclusions that absolutely boggle the mind. I wouldn’t be daft enough to say that Rufus Wainwright’s cover of “Across the Universe” — the one with the cute video of him wearing awesome pants and Dakota Fanning — is better than the original. But unlike the tons and tons of Beatles’ covers out there, it at least did the original justice, but that one’s nowhere to be found. Elsewhere, I have no idea where “14th Street” and “Beautiful Child” are, although I suppose that gives you some incentive to seek out his best album, Want One, when you’re done here. And that’s without mentioning lesser known entities like “Greek Song” off Poses or the humorous “Gay Messiah” from Want Two. Though the compilation is named after it, “Vibrate” was never so much a tune as it was a lot of vibrato over almost absolutely nothing to ground him.
Most of the songs on Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright are (rightfully) culled from his early career, since his gift for melody has slowly stagnated after Want One. That being said, the best songs from his later career find their way here. There’s the stomping “The One You Love”, which nicely picks up the slack after the aforementioned “Vibrate”, with a constantly moving melody and lovely backing vocals during its last verse. There’s “Going To a Town” (his highest charting hit, at a modest #54) that opens the set, a surprisingly political offering from Mr. Wainwright who normally deals with a more inward-looking palette, over a constantly varying musical bed. Then, there’s the title track from 2012’s Out of the Game, an apology of sorts to the fans-only All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, and compilation-only “Me and Liza”, both with climaxes so exciting, they justify the proceedings as if their melodies didn’t already.
In a broad sense, one of Rufus Wainwright’s biggest follies was that, like a lot of similar artists who share in his bombast, his battles are often his own, as if most of these songs came to him after a heartbreak and a bottle of red wine. For example, you can guess the lyrics of “The Art Teacher” before they part Rufus’s lips, “He asked us what our favorite work of art was / But never could I tell it was him.” That being said, the two choice cuts from 2001’s Poses are Rufus Wainwright at his most lyrically and melodically poignant. The commentary in the gems, “Made me a man ah but who cares what that is” and “I did go from wanting to be someone now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue””find their way into “Poses”. Meanwhile, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” cleverly hid his famous struggle with drug addiction in cute metaphors (“I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish / A little bit Tower of Pisa / Whenever I see ya / So please be kind if I’m a mess”).
Those songs aside, some of the most satisfying songs come from Want One. There’s “Oh What a World”, slowly unravelling over the “oompah-oompah beat anchored by a tuba” (words courtesy of PopMatters’s David Medsker). There’s “I Don’t Know What It Is”, sporting one of Rufus Wainwright’s catchiest choruses. And then there’s “Go or Go Ahead”, the man’s most ambitious song, starting as a hushed acoustic number before exploding into the bombastic theatre we know and love him for. If you liked what you heard here, I’d suggest picking up Want One immediately.