I had planned to hold this review until next week, but then the record leaked, so here are my thoughts...
What becomes a legend most? Rufus Wainwright had an idea when he recently said, “This is as strong and magnificent and young as I’m ever gonna be all at one time.” In a typically Bartlett’s-worthy fashion, Rufus is promising that his fifth album, Release The Stars, is nothing less than mega. The aural equivalent of a Fabergé egg. I actually think the above comment better fits 2001’s Want One, my choice for his magnum opus. That album was a swirling storm of thousand-overdub vocals, strings and horns and its quirky twin (Want Two) was a weird collision of avant garde (Old Whore’s Diet) and radio pop (The One I Love).
What keeps Release The Stars from achieving Want One legend status? Not much except for the fact that 1) you cannot ever truly relive a Moment and 2) Stars is a slightly quieter affair than I'd imagined from his own descriptions. The opening track, Do I Disappoint You? bears the chorus, “Why does it always have to be fire? Brimstone?” The answer is that it doesn't, though over-the-top, grandiose pop music has always been Wainwright’s forte. Stars is more subdued. It is buttressed by a trio of gorgeously over-the-top numbers, including that first song, but it’s also his most chilled out, calm record since his 1998 debut.
Debut single Going To A Town is a fine example of restraint: a quiet, disappointed protest song that sounds like early Elton John. It has a classic melody and a simplicity that is actually present in many Rufus songs, but not something he's noted for. To call the track anti-American would be simplistic. It's about trying to live through a time in which things you once counted on as good are no longer that.
Nobody’s Off The Hook might slip by on first listen. A beautiful string quartet piece, it’s dedicated to his longtime friend and guitarist Teddy Thompson, who’s apparently “become the one desire in every woman’s heart” while “hanging with a homo and hairdresser.” For me, the arrangement evokes 1950’s New York on a damp Sunday afternoon. That’s Rufusian skill. Many will read my description and say, “Err, what?” but his songs often connote something very specific to the listener.
The album’s centerpiece, Between My Legs, begins as a jaunty pop/rock number (fans, think The One I Love), but at 2:42 comes a middle eight that never actually ends. The song transforms into something entirely new as Rufus sings about an underground river escape, with I Claudius actress Siân Phillips reciting the lyrics in a recitation so dramatic it makes Lady Macbeth seem like Florence Henderson. It’s a testament to Wainwright’s comfort level as an artist that he gladly hands over one of the most glorious moments in his musical career to another vocalist, the same way he might cede to a French horn or chamber quartet. He’s still the star of his show, but he’s sharing. If fans are going to have a Big Gay Moment on this record, where they finally lose their shit and start running around screaming, the last 90 seconds of this song - complete with Phantom Of The Opera crescendos - are sooo it.
Each Rufus album has a piece of pure theatricality: last time it was Little Sister and here it’s Tulsa. In two short minutes Rufus remembers an evening spent in rock star mode with The Killers' Brandon Flowers, a human mix of eyeliner and conflicted Morman values. This is the kind of song that will make fans shake in ecstasy and bystanders plug their ears. It's hardcore Wainwright, complete with cutting wit and nasal vocals.
The much anticipated Sanssouci is one that disappoints. After all, the song is embodied in this lyrical gem: Cupid’s rings have cobwebs rings. Had I written that line, I’d have taken all my friends out for drinks [in Paris], but the musical arrangement just doesn’t touch the imagery
Other tracks, like Tiergarten or Rules And Regulations may grow over time. The only moment that pushes too hard comes toward the end of Slideshow, when Rufus invites in guitarist Richard Thompson for an ambling, electric guitar solo that Rufus proceeds to slash with sharp jabbing strings. Vocally though, Rufus has never been better. Slideshow has a chill-inducing ending where he quietly sings "Do I love you? Yes I do” with no sense of drama, just honesty. Likewise, Leaving For Paris is all hushed vocals against classical piano. It’s a delicate green leaf of a song. There’s more vocal subtlety on this record than ever before.
The blowsy, horn-laden finale, Release The Stars, does just what its title promises. He’s done nothing quite like it. With its "Old Hollywood" setting, the song sounds like something Mae West might have played on her iPod as she flounced around her boudoir, securing her mammoth bosom for an evening out. It’s celebrity skin at its best and as big as Rufus gets, with great details, like the gorgeous July 4th moment at 2:26 where the orchestra sounds like a swirl of stars / fireworks falling to the ground.
Ultimately, Rufus Wainwright is so gifted that he’s able to toss off genius moments without exploiting them or dragging them into tedium. Where his previous two albums seemed to be perpetually climbing the ladder [gasp] to the mountain peak of the silvery cloud [gasp] of the impossible dream [gasp], Release The Stars is more subtle. If Rufus doesn’t always make it pop like I want it too, he’s not gilding any lilies either. Legends don’t need to, do they?
Perhaps I haven't told you 1,000 times to watch out on May 15 for my Instinct Magazine interview with Rufus?