Rufus Wainwright is the Real McCoy — talent in spades. Not that he needs to hear that repeated for the umpteenth time. When his eponymously titled first album came out in 1998, critics had to refill their slobber buckets with each new paragraph they began in extolling the wonders of his seamless mix of Broadway melody and Tin Pan Alley pop. Things kind of . . . exploded for him right then and there. Rolling Stone named him Best New Artist of the Year, party invitations came pouring in, Michael Stipe and Julianne Moore became fans, celebrity photographers took a million pictures, and fringe-y gay boys everywhere found someone worthy of emitting a deep-down sigh over. Naturally, all of it went to his head a bit. He already knew going in that he had something special — hearing it repeated ad nauseam over top-shelf cocktails proved to be, I’m sure, the definitive ego boost. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn he needed medical attention in helping erase the perma-grin that probably set in after the 100th “I really love your album, Rufus.”
Fans have been waiting three agonizingly long years for the follow-up, and in that time, more than a few people began to whisper about the inevitability of Wainwright falling into the dreaded sophomore slump. Or worse — one hit wonder status. He started out on top — where else could he go after putting out one of the most auspicious debuts of all time? Then there were the things you heard New Yorkers talk about — the messy, messy states they’d seen Rufus in late at night. Many scratched their heads, rolled their eyes, and emitted motherly sighs of concern.
Details finally began to emerge earlier this year about Poses, Rufus’ second album. They did nothing in fanning the flames of anticipation over its release. It was announced that five different producers were at the helm, which is never a good sign. One of them (Pierre Marchand), has worked extensively with Sarah Mclachlan. No comment. Another one, Alex Gifford, is a member of Propellerheads. No comment. I began to rightly fear the possibility of an overproduced mess. Wainwright needs a good captain at the helm of the ship — the brilliant Jon Brion (who produced the first album) did wonders with steering the young lad into musically unified waters. But this new crew . . . I dunno, I didn’t get a good feeling. Marchand practically help define the VH-1 sound, the electronic-oriented Gifford somehow roped the amazing Shirley Bassey into participating in one of the most annoying songs ever (“History Repeating”). I kind of let go at that point and began thinking about potential greatness from the other Wainwright offspring — Rufus’ kid sister Martha, who had told me last fall she was working on getting a full-length album out by late 2001.
Well, Poses is at long last here, and I was proven wrong — it’s a winner; so good that it will probably be on many 10 best lists at the end of the year. The production is eclectic for sure, but in a strangely evasive way — you don’t realize how individualistic each track is until about the tenth full listen. The songs are beautifully tended to — running the gamut from the expectedly lush to the surprisingly stark. For those who loved the florid show tune sound from the first album, there’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, an ode to all the bad cravings in life. Then there’s the stripped-down acoustic cover of dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy”, undoubtedly the most touching moment on the album. The track from left field is quickly becoming my favorite — the Led Zeppelin-esque (yes, Led Zeppelin-esque) “In a Graveyard”.
Another one of Poses striking features is the clearly evident maturity and confidence in Wainwright’s songwriting. His words have become a bit world-weary and questioning — wondering in equal parts apathy (“I did go from wanting to be someone, now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue” on “Poses”) and hilarity (“I don’t know this sea of neon, thousand surfers, whiffs of freon, and my new grandma Bea Arthur” on “California”) about the fame that’s been thrust upon him. They’re also refreshingly free of false modesty, something that’s become a real annoyance in twentysomething actors and musicians. When he sings “I could be a great star” on “Shadows”, you know the boy’s in touch with his inner-Diana Ross.
But Wainwright’s powerful voice takes the cake as the feature that stands out the most. It’s a mighty instrument — one that has the ability to make people swoon and believe in true love. I mean that. It makes you realize just how inconsequential everything else on Poses could be (but which it of course isn’t!). When he opens his mouth and sings from his gut — the guitars, the drums, the backing vocals — all kind of fall to the sidelines.
PS — Don’t make presumptions about albums based on press releases.