Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dahling, You Were Fabulous: Rufus Wainwright's Camp Cabaret

Opulent, camp, grandiose, extravagant, excessive, theatrical, operatic, romantic – these are all words that spring immediately to mind when listening to Rufus Wainwright’s latest magnum opus. Even the CD itself is bright pink, for heaven’s sake. Never one to under-egg the pudding, he has continued the orchestral preoccupations of the Want double set on ‘Release The Stars’, albeit with a generous helping of sensitivity and restraint for the sake of balance. It may be his most considered and effective work to date. Those who feared that Neil Tennant’s appearance as Executive Producer might have made for an album of throwback synth-pop need not have been concerned.

Rufus’ most overblown creations continue to work because they come with a deliciously self-mocking sense of their own absurdity. His own arrangement for ‘Do I Disappoint You?’ is hysterical, and even the introduction of a child’s choir fails to destroy its music hall cabaret spirit. It’s hard not to raise a smile as Rufus bellows ‘why does it always have to be….CHAOS?!!’. Similarly, the portentous ‘Slideshow’ works because it is also hilarious, its chorus featuring a decidedly smug Rufus demanding ‘and I’d better play a prominent part in your next SLIDESHOW!’. Most ridiculous of all, from its title to its ludicrous outro complete with Sian Phillips voiceover, is ‘Between My Legs’, a sharper, more infectious take on the punchier rock sound of ‘Movies of Myself’. Even when the arrangements are less embellished, Waiwright still can’t resist excess. ‘Tulsa’ is apparently an ode to Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, and comes with a quite extraordinary opening gambit (‘You taste like potato chips in the morning/You face has the Marlon Brando club calling’).

Wainwright is a true romantic of course, and elsewhere this album contains some moments of real beauty. The lush ‘Tiergarten’ is entrancing, and yet again demonstrates Wainwright’s mastery of vocal harmony arrangements, through which he continues to extend his musical language. ‘Not Ready to Love’ sounds painfully candid, and is as a result heartbreaking. It’s easily the most subtle and controlled song Wainwright has yet delivered. Similarly, ‘Leaving for Paris No. 2’ is tinged with genuine sadness. These songs hark back to the finest moments on ‘Poses’.

His romanticism is more playful on the excellent ‘Rules and Regulations’ and the exotic ‘Sanssouci’, on which he delivers two quite masterful vocal performances. In fact, his voice is much improved throughout the record – there’s much less slurring of words and he’s relying more now on his ability to vary dynamics to give the songs shape and direction.

Wainwright’s greatest gift may be his ability to make the trivial sound vital, and to make the superficial sound beautiful. It’s quite a trick, but whilst ‘Release the Stars’ continues to make beauty a paragon of virtue, it also captures a more tender side as well. Some will see these as conflicting extremes, pulling Wainwright in two directions. I find it easier to view them as two sides of the same coin – and this album makes Wainwright sound more multi-faceted and intriguing than ever. He’s a star himself.

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