Rufus Wainwright seems to have as many haters as he has adoring lovers. The critical community is just as split down the middle as regular listeners, which makes you wonder, as he continues to pound out bombastic but transcendent orchestral pop, how much point there is to a conventional review. His baroque style of pop is never going to be for everyone, but that’s hardly cause to lambaste the singer for a lack of talent. In fact, there’s more raw musical ability — from the lush orchestral arrangements to the tightly constructed pop forms — on Release the Stars than on all those attitude-filled, buzz-fueled debuts we get each year. And in general, Wainwright’s getting more ambitious as he goes along. Ten years in, you get the sense the best is yet to come (baby).
The over-indulgence of Wainwright’s music is a given, something that follows from his frankly dramatic personal exploits and that tracks so closely from his backwards-looking sensibility. Wainwright’s liberal discussion of his personal life annoys as much as it enlightens or is a cause for slack-jawed sympathy. That one of the songs on his new album is about his alleged one night stand with the lead singer of the Killers, Brandon Flowers, is typical: it means nothing for the quality of the music itself but is a perfect indicator of the sensationalist drama that Wainwright can’t avoid if he tried. And his fascination with things of the past is on display everywhere on Release the Stars. It comes through on the lush orchestral arrangements, the aristocratic 19th century recreation “Sanssouci”, and the singers Broadway musical-style vocal stylings.
Rufus Wainwright’s growing role as a contemporary composer is a little puzzling given the fact that his album songs show more showtune character than serious mini-operettas. Truth is, musical sophistication means a different thing in a three- or four-minute song, or even a movie score, than it does for the full opera the Met recently commissioned. Wainwright’s always been the most backwards-looking of the high-profile alternative singer-songwriters — I tend to think of him along with Ryan Adams and Connor Oberst, for some reason — and, as on Oberst’s latest album, Wainright’s beginning to feel the effects of the passing years. At 33, he’s commented, the time is for action: “Now is the time to act on your desires and your dreams, to use your good side.” That’s a very different sentiment to the dominant weariness of Cassadanga, and in general it bodes well for Wainwright. As a songwriter seeking relevance, you don’t necessarily want to be emphasizing apathy at this early stage of the game.
And so Wainwright shoots us to the stars with “Do I Disappoint You” and hardly backs off from there. That song is one of a quartet of very strong pieces at the disc’s opening that set the tone for the album, a standard that is only intermittently matched over the remaining songs. “Going to a Town”, the first single, is indeed the strongest song, but it’s also the most obvious — a simple, building piano ballad, saturated in a now-familiar disillusion: “I’m so tired of America.” But Wainwright sometimes lets his romanticism get the best of him (a tendency Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson might sympathize with), so that his heaping violins and trumpets and saxophones occasionally crowd out a song’s sense of itself. “Release the Stars” is romantic and large-sweep, but never really rises up out of the soupy arrangement. It’s a shortfall that’s understandable, and hopefully addressable with time and a ruthless producer.
So we’re back to: do you like Rufus or don’t you? Release the Stars is a coherent, sophisticated exposition of the usual Wainwright themes, but it won’t be the shooting-into-mainstream pop-rock opus Wainwright was potentially hoping for. The tics of personality are still there, the anachronism’s still there, the perpetual suspension-release. It’s fine, of course. Onward and sideways, Wainwright’s continuing to craft a musical legacy designed to last. And he’s getting better — or at least more consistent — with each project.