Thursday, April 26, 2007

Release the Stars

Rufus Wainwright's new album isn't out yet, but it's already recieved some glowing praise. I can only imagine that in the case of a critics' darling, some reviewers have made up their minds before even hearing the album. This always seems to me to be the case with the British music press more than the American music press. They decide some artist produces good work and then proceed to gush about them in a sycophantic and hyperbolic way. Anyone who has read NME has seen a rather egregious example of this tendancy. Anyway, this tendancy is on full display in the 5 star review from the Guardian. I find myself hoping now that the frequently obnoxious Pitchfork says nasty things about it, because I've heard the leaked CD and I like few things as much as having my opinions validated by others. And yes, I do realize that's petty and lame.

The thing is, I've been a big fan of Rufus Wainwright for years. I bought his CDs and went to his concerts and told people how fabulous he was and all that shit. The problem is that no matter how great he is, he's still not nearly as wonderful as he seems to think he is. And for a long time I found that narcissism not only tolerable, but even vaguely charming. Because he was at least making wonderful music. But this CD includes lots of not-so-wonderful music and thus his faults are harder to forgive. There's still good stuff on here. It's half a good album. But there's a lot of self-loving (and I don't mean that in the dirty way), melody-free dreck. And in the time-honored tradition of the rant, I'm going to talk about each and every song briefly just so you can all see how annoyed I am. But hey, at least I'm giving you fair warning.

It opens with a song that I actually enjoy a fair bit, called Do I Disappoint You?, in retrospect a somewhat prophetic name. It opens by asking the addressee if he disappoints him, "in just being human." It also features Martha Wainwright yelling things like, "fire," and, "chaos," in the background. I'm not totally crazy about the lyrics, but it's one of the high points in the album for me. Which is too bad, because I only like the song. It's followed by Going to a Town which will probably get attention because it's the first single and is critical of America. I'm all for criticizing my country. But only if it's done well. And while I like the music on this one the lyrics are broad, not terribly perceptive, and frankly bring nothing to the conversation. Don't get me wrong, I'm fairly tired of the way my country as a whole is behaving too, I just think it could be put in a more interesting way. Follow that up with the mannered Tiergarten and we're on song four before we get to another one I actually enjoy listening to.

That would be Nobody's Off the Hook which has two rather big things going for it: a) you can actually hear the piano, which is often one of the nicest things about his songs and b) it's about someone other than himself. Between My Legs I had heard him do live. Liked it then and like it now--it's kicky and fun and has a nice voiceover toward the end by Sian Phillips. But after that we dive off the cliff.

Rules and Regulations starts off with a nice rhyming couplet (human relations/public citations) but doesn't have much else going for it. The lyrics are, at best, boring and at times bad and the music just isn't particularly interesting. Then I'm Not Ready to Love come on and makes Rules and Regulations sound good in comparison. The lyrics are just awful. If I wanted to "enjoy" lyrics like, "I'm not ready to love/I'm not ready to fly," and, "I'm not ready to love/until I'm ready to love you/the way you should be loved/until I'm ready to hold you/the way you should be held," then there's an awful lot of crappy high school poetry out there and I'm sure I can find it.

This is followed by Slideshow which I actually enjoyed initially because I enjoy the music, particularly Richard Thompson's always excellent guitar work. But the lyrics irritate me more each time I hear it. He's pondering why he loves someone. That's fine, but it's only interesting if we, as listeners have some idea of the beloved. And yes, that means something more than that he doesn't want his back rubbed. And Rufus used to do that in his songs (see: Danny Boy among others), but apparently he can no longer be bothered. Count in the obnoxious lines, "I'd better be prominently featured in your next slideshow/'cause I paid a lot of money to get you over here, you know," and I'm torn between wanting to listen to the music and wanting him to shut the hell up. Tulsa descends to I'm Not Ready to Love levels with crappy, self-regarding lyrics, and singing that doesn't seem to mesh at all with the overdone musical accompaniment. And thus ends the ditch of bad to mediocre songwriting in the center of the album

A lot of people really love Leaving for Paris, which is an older song. I've always just found it boring. He adds a verse here. I remain utterly indifferent to the song on its own. But listening to the album straight through, it's an absolute breath of fresh area, with little relatively little orchestration--you can actually pay attention to the voice--and lyrics that show some regard for someone other than himself. This marks an upswing of sorts because the next song, Sanssouci actually goes so far as to paint an exterior scene. It's a song with a setting and a cast of characters as well as lyrics that are interesting and an actual tune. And Release the Stars is a good ending song. Grandiose but controlled, it's an extended metaphor using the old Hollywood system of keeping movie stars under contract to specific studios. Which is actually and interesting thing to write about and fits well with the big sound.

So in the end you have a music with songs that succeed but with a bunch of other songs that fail utterly. And with Wainwright albums that's impossible to ignore or overlook because his aims are so grand and over-the-top. It's like the self-edit function was broken and no one was making judgements on what was actually successful and what wasn't. Maybe he should never produce his own albums? I don't have an answer, but nothing would please me more at this pioint than for Rufus to write an entire album of songs that are not about himself. Because seriously? He's not so interesting that he can write about nothing and no one else. No one is. What's interesting is the interactions and relationships between people and too many songs on this album seem to completely lose sight of that in favor of wallowing in self-absorption.

I'd also like a scaled-back, simplified album with strong melodies, but not as much as I'd like better, less solipsistic lyrics.


N said...

I forgot about Rufus for a while, then thought about him and realized how tired I was of him...then stumbled across your post :) He was charming years ago, but now he's just another self-absorbed gay man (and I mention his sexuality simply because he himself makes it part of his publicity.)

I think I started to turn when I heard "Agnus Dei" off of one of the "Want" albums. A lot of people borrow text from the Catholic mass for musical projects... some work out better than others.

Meg said...

I don't actually think that his sexuality has anything in particular to do with his narcissism if only because the whole self-absorbed gay man is nothing more than a stereotype with a weak basis in reality. I think there are just people of all preferences who are self absorbed but only certain groups get pegged with it.

Agnus Dei was on Want Two which had some very good songs and on a whole was better than this album, I'd say, but was a step down from Want One and others. I wasn't at all fond of Agnus Dei either though. Or the whole, "I need to sing this song to better the world" crap.

N said...

Haha sorry..didn't mean to imply that gay men as a whole were like that. I have met a few like that who place a heavy emphasis on being better/more enlightened than other people because of their sexuality, (Rufus seems to come off this way to me) but I wouldn't want to categorize everyone based on that.

I'm not sure what would make him produce an album that was more bland than his other efforts...perhaps is it complacency, or maybe he needs to go in a different direction?