Rufus Wainwright fans love him for his musical innovation as much as his goofy charm. And on Want One (the artist was so prolific that a second volume will be released next year), Wainwright supplies both: gorgeous, hugely orchestrated Tin Pan Alley, cabaret pop and the occasional giggle.
The album begins with "Oh What a World." Its anchoring tuba loops between Ravel's "Bolero" theme and a choir of harmonizing voices. The song blossoms into its circular structure and Wainwright sings, "Wouldn't it be a lovely headline?/ 'Life is Beautiful' on the New York Times," unveiling a fully orchestrated arrangement that looms as large as the wondrous yet improbable pronouncement.
Things get grandiose on "I Don't Know What It Is," which chugs along with its soaring melody and kicky chorus. Another thing Wainwright fans appreciate is his invariable wit. It's not uncommon for a Wainwright lyric to be filled with cultural allusions, everything from an obscure reference to Greek mythology, Ravel (as previously noted) or "Three's Company," which is mentioned not once but, yes, twice in just that one song. And notice another literary quality: the album's consistent train motif. "I Don't Know What It Is" has an insistent rumble and horn-blasted clatter that resembles a moving train. Wainwright's point? Perhaps he's saying he's an emotional vagabond, his heart drifting wearily from one place to another.
Thematically the album explores Wainwright's newly sober world view; he certainly has been candid about the ugly, drug-fueled journeys on which he's embarked previously, his lovelorn past and his own family issues, especially struggles with his father, musician Loudon Wainwright III.
He once sang about excesses. Now, on Want One he pines for simpler things. On the wistful title track, Wainwright disavows the fame and fortune he hammily sought. "I just want to be my dad/ with a slight sprinkling of my mother/ and work in the family store," he sings against the muted, misty backdrop. The song slaloms along, settling into its beautifully subdued pace and dreamlike atmosphere.
Family matters abound elsewhere. "Dinner at Eight," one of his most poignant songs, discusses abandonment by his father. Its plangent, elegant piano melody is finessed by supple strings and Wainwright's pleas. "Why is it so that I've always been the one who must go/ That I've always been the one told to flee/ When in fact you were the one, long ago, actually, in the drifting white snow/ You left me," he sings. The result? Heartbreaking.
Thank goodness Wainwright's theatrical side hasn't abated. Want One provides plenty of histrionic moments. "14th Street" is all glitter and pizzazz, a stew of background vocals, a brassy chorus and all out revelry. The song, like Wainwright's persona, is over the top, splashy and so much fun. "Vibrate" also supplies some chuckles. In it Wainwright sings of aging. His clever banter is offset by a choir of plucky violins and measured piano playing. "I tried to dance [to] Britney Spears," he sings, followed by this, the kicker. "I guess I'm getting on in years."
Want Two is reportedly darker, more operatic and farther afield than much of this album. Fans are eager to get their hands on it. But one thing's for sure. There's plenty on Want One to keep those of us who dig Wainwright's music busy until next year's release. Whether you listen closely, for the sonic textures, or in a cursory fashion, scouting out the allusions galore, with each listen you'll likely appreciate something different. Rufus Wainwright wouldn't want it any other way.