All's right with Rufus

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright pulls off an eclectic range of genres in his stellar new album.

Published May 19, 2007


Rufus Wainwright

Release the Stars (Geffen) GRADE: A

It is impossible for Rufus Wainwright to be subtle. Or private. Or straight. Or dull. The mischievous son of folk heroes Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, the 33-year-old is drama incarnate, a gay icon, a recovering drug addict, a pop star like no other.

Opera, gospel, cabaret. big band, Broadway, rock. On new album Release the Stars, Wainwright creates a brutally honest, genre-splattered gem even he calls "huge." How huge? Album opener Do I Disappoint You mixes bird calls, a children's choir and a crescendoing symphony akin to a Cecil B. DeMille epic. The song would be ridiculous if it weren't so ridiculously moving, a lapel-gripping plea for tolerance.

But that's Rufus for you, always striving for a grand statement - and almost always making his point.

Last year, the Hollywood-handsome star made news by booking time at Carnegie Hall and re-creating, song for song, a classic 1961 Judy Garland performance. The New York Times raved about the live show. So did Entertainment Weekly. The parallels between Rufus and Judy were suddenly clear: prodigious showbiz kids with all the talent in the world - and all the drugs, breakups and family dysfunction that come with it.

The similarities don't stop there. Like Garland, Wainwright holds nothing back when he sings, whether he's soundtracking a Disney movie Meet the Robinsons or remaking a Beatles song (Across the Universe) or tackling an aria (Agnus Dei). He's a belter with a slightly nasal croon and an emphatic knack for language.

He doesn't just yearn, he YEARNS. He might go off on a wild vocal run (he loves Edith Piaf almost as much as Garland), but he always returns to a crowd-pleasing place.

Along with playing a handful of instruments, Wainwright writes his songs, too, framing moody, funny diary entries in colorful compositions. On 2002 song Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, a must-have on any iPod, he chronicles his crystal meth dependency over a cartoonish melody fit for Willy Wonka. On the new Nobody's Off the Hook, he revisits his struggles with sobriety. "Haven't fallen down in a while, " he smirks, as an Eleanor Rigbian violin paints a lonely landscape.

Wainwright's favorite topic remains the pretty young things he chases (and dumps) around the globe, and that pursuit reaches new heights on Between My Legs. What starts as a roots-rocky breakup tune ends with French horns, harp plucks and 73-year-old actor Sian Phillips echoing the lyrics with Shakespearean gravitas. Almost as good, the slow-building Slideshow is reminiscent of a '70s ballad by Elton John, another brazenly gay performer with universal appeal.

Every now and then, Wainwright kicks half his band out of the studio and makes do with a smaller circus. On dirgelike first single Going to a Town, he laments, "I'm so tired of you America, " a Dear John letter to the country he hates to love. The gauzy, gorgeous Not Ready to Love devastates as well.

Release the Stars builds to the closing title track, an escapist fantasy about the glamor and idealism of old-time Hollywood. Wainwright has time-traveled here before, starring as a ballroom balladeer warbling I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. But if that movie was big, this song is bigger: horn and string sections, booming drums, doo-wopping backing singers. And there, in the midst of it all, is Wainwright, masking his pain in the escapism of the movies, YEARNING for happily every after.

Sean Daly can be reached at (727) 893-8467 or sdaly@sptimes.com. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.