Rufus Wants a Hit
Linker, Damon, Newsweek
Byline: Damon Linker
After years spent brooding, Wainwright finally embraces pop.
Rufus Wainwright's fans have come to expect extravagance. A new album might start with a lushly orchestrated cabaret number, veer into gothic folk, pause for a ballad or two played solo at the piano, take a detour into Radiohead-inspired alternative rock, and end with a rousing show tune backed by strings, brass, woodwinds, harpsichord, banjo, harp, and a choral group. There was the time he opened a record with a 7-minute ditty sung entirely in Latin--with lyrics and title borrowed from the "Agnus Dei" portion of the Roman Catholic Mass. In concert he's equally prone to excess. Most nights on his 2007 tour in support of Release the Stars, he opened the concert wearing a garishly multicolored striped suit, switched to lederhosen after intermission, began the encore in a plush white bathrobe, and ended the evening decked out in drag as he performed a cover of Harold Arlen's "Get Happy," a song made famous by Judy Garland.
Admirers who take such flamboyance for granted may be shocked by Wainwright's seventh studio album, Out of the Game, which sounds remarkably restrained--like the work of a man trying very hard to rein it all in. "Yeah, maybe it's a Rufus Reined-Wright record," he says with a chuckle.
Why curb his musical enthusiasms? Part of it was simple creative fatigue. "I love making albums where every song sounds like its own opera," he says. But Wainwright has now written an actual opera--Bella Donna, which debuted at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, England, in 2009 and had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past February. When it came time to record his next pop album, he says, "I was pretty exhausted ... I was ready to sit back and let someone else do the conducting."
That someone is Mark Ronson, the Grammy Award-winning producer of hits for Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, and Adele. And that points to what might be the deeper reason for the new record's change of pace. "I need a hit single somewhat desperately," Wainwright admits. His critically acclaimed self-titled debut album was released in 1998, which, he notes, was "right at the beginning of the collapse" of the record industry. "I remember thinking it could never get any worse." But of course it did. With a rabid cult following that allows him to fill thousand-seat auditoriums around the world, Wainwright has it much better than most struggling musicians. Yet the reality is that composing music requires "taking a year off at a time to sit around and dream." That kind of leisure, in turn, requires commercial success.
Far from being out of the game, then, Wainwright is in it more intensely than ever before. "I'm using reverse psychology, taunting the fates with a touch of snobbery," Wainwright says about the album's title. "We'll see if that works." Despite the novelty of its approach, the record isn't a complete departure from his past. Wainwright still crafts intricate, unpredictable melodies--the kind that inspired Elton John to describe him as the "greatest songwriter on the planet." A handful of tracks boast baroque arrangements that would have sounded at home on his most ambitious releases, Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004). …