Rufus Wainwright is a small man with enormous talent and no attention span whatsoever. Call it the curse of the truly gifted: his albums veer from pop to cabaret to folk to opera, sometimes within the space of a few seconds. He clearly envisions himself as the Renaissance warrior he portrays on the album’s cover, and is blessed (or cursed, depending on whom you ask) with one of the most unique voices in music. There is no real taking or leaving him, which means, like Tom Waits, he must be doing something right.
Well, most of the time he’s doing something right. Heaven knows what Wainwright would actually be capable of if he would just focus on an idea for a minute or two. That he is interested in so many different styles of music and can pull them off is indeed impressive. But it’s also maddening, because he has yet to deliver the pop masterpiece he’s clearly capable of making. His 1998 debut flirted more with the theater stage than the concert hall, and the times he did try out a pop song, like the magnificent “April Fools”, it made the album sound more uneven than it actually was. 2001’s Poses was better, but its second half was filled with the same hushed mood pieces that weighed down his first album.
This time, though, he comes close to getting it oh so right. Want One, Wainwright’s latest, is filled with the stuff of greatness. It’s a staggeringly ambitious album with an emotional complexity the like of which is rarely seen in pop music of any era, never mind this one. Wainwright is unafraid to let it all hang out, even if it exposes his weaknesses. Which, ultimately, is exactly what Want One does.
Like all of Wainwright’s records, the first half is stuffed with the best material: “Oh What A World” opens with a cacophony of voices that blends into what Noel Gallagher, when chiding Blur, once called “chimney sweep music”, an oompah-oompah beat anchored by a tuba and one very powerful kick drum. (“Men reading fashion magazines / Oh what a world it seems we live in / Straight men.” The boy hasn’t lost his sense of humor.) The song has three verses that repeat with the gradual addition of plucked strings, an army of vocalists, and the rest of the orchestra that came with the tuba player. It’s grandiose stuff, and about as definitively Rufus as they come.
Next up: pop song. “I Don’t Know What It Is” stands more than a decent shot at airplay on more adventurous AAA stations. It’s about not even knowing that you’re lost, a theme that pops up quite a bit on Want One, as Wainwright battled more than his share of demons, romantic or otherwise, since Poses was released in 2001. The melody is simple and strong, and the arrangement is relatively uncluttered, save for some tasteful strings and horns that pop up in the second chorus. Swiping a line from the theme to Three’s Company (“So I knock on the door, take a step that is new”) is a nice nod to his grown-up fan base, too.
If “I Don’t Know” doesn’t make some radio inroads (and since there is no official first single, it likely won’t) “Movies of Myself” could certainly do the job. A superb rocker (well, as much as Wainwright can rock, anyway) that is the album’s energetic peak, “Movies” is propelled by a driving drum beat, acoustic guitar and standard Wainwright four part harmony, where Wainwright admonishes a lover for running from commitment. “ start giving me something, a love that is longer than a day/Start making my heart sing something that it doesn’t want to say”. Wainwright gets so excited towards the end, however, he almost blows the deal by engaging in the kind of histrionic octave jumping that Mariah Carey made her name, and grave, with. “Beautiful Child”, meanwhile, is an infectious Afro-Cuban rave about redemption and the glories of growing old. The biggest tragedy is that Kirsty MacColl didn’t live long enough to cover it.
For those worried that Wainwright has forsaken his love for the theater, fear not: “14th Street” would have made more sense in Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out show than any of Joel’s songs did, with a rowdy honky tonk piano line and some clever wordplay. The album’s closer, “Dinner at Eight”, also sounds tailor made for a musical. A poignant open letter to his father, folk legend Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus comes to terms with the sense of abandonment he felt as a child and how adulthood helped him come to terms with it. It’s a moment ripe for schmaltz if handled poorly, but instead is deeply moving.
With so much strong material, Want One seems unstoppable, yes? Well, close, until we get to “Vibrate”, a brief string-based aside that Wainwright refers to as a moment of levity. Humorous songs are perfectly acceptable — after all, what was “Instant Pleasure” if not hilariously direct — but the jokes here, about a vibrating cell phone that never rings, electroclash karaoke and Britney Spears, will allow future music historians to guess the release date of Want One down to the second. His 9/11 tribute, “11:11” (wonder if he knows Fluid Ounces gave a song that title in 1999), obviously has its heart in the right place but opens with a jaw-droppingly lazy lyric: “Woke up this morning at 11:11 / Wasn’t in Portland and I wasn’t in heaven.” Skip.
“Harvester of Hearts” is from the “Danny Boy” mold of showtune revenge songs, though doesn’t quite hold the same gravity “Danny” does, largely in part to the featherweight vocal Wainwright contributes. “Vicious World” is supposed to be clever with its nasty lyric accompanying a softer than soft ballad, but the melody is too light for its own good. Musicians may love playing Rhodes pianos, but to the listener they’re sonic taffy: Sweet, icky and very bad for you.
These missteps, however, are almost completely redeemed by Track 6.
“Go or Go Ahead” is not only Wainwright’s best work ever but one of the best pop songs of the decade. Picture the Divine Comedy’s “The Certainty of Chance” covered by Queen, and you’re close: a hushed acoustic number that doesn’t play its hand until the two and a half minute mark, where it erupts into a grand epic of charged guitars and a near literal Greek chorus. It’s “The Show Must Go On” loaded with mythology, with Wainwright begging Medusa to “Kiss me and crucify / This unholy notion of the mythic power of love / Look in her eyes / Forget about the ones that are crying”. Accompanied by a soaring vocal, “Go or Go Ahead” is a modern classic.
So why, then, does the album feel incomplete? Want One is certainly one of the best pop albums released this year, yet two things prevent Wainwright from snatching the crown. One is Wainwright’s penchant for the maudlin. The problem with having this kind of talent is that it almost always comes with a healthy dose of emotional instability, and while Wainwright’s public persona is chipper, sharp and sassy, he makes no bones about what’s in his closet on record, and it takes the form of fugue after fugue (see “Vicious World”, “Pretty Things”, “Natasha”, “Want”). Eventually, fugue fatigue sets in.
The other catch with Want One is that it’s the first of two albums of material he recorded with producer Marius deVries (Madonna, U2, Neil Finn). Next year will see the release of Want Two, which is supposed to contain the darker, weirder material that was deemed too left field for Want One. As it stands, the Want sessions seem destined to be Wainwright’s Use Your Illusions, or his Kid A/Amnesiac, meaning history will indeed teach us nothing. Both Guns ‘n Roses and Radiohead had single album works of art on their hands, only to squander it in a fit of double album self-indulgence.
Want One is a remarkable effort, but if the next album has only three or four worthy songs, then Want One may be remembered most for denying us of something truly magical.