Rufus Wainwright And The Paradox Of Talent

His fans revere him a musician of the utmost calibre: if only he could just concentrate on his strengths and not be distracted by diluting side projects...
Publish date:

Rufus Wainwright fans have special permission to not take him seriously. To roll their eyes at the object of their admiration. The source of this permission: his arrogance. Anyone carrying around as much overbrimming self-love as Rufus can tolerate the odd critical barb. Here's my first: he doesn't know his own talents. Where do they lie? Rufus is clueless. It's lucky for him that he's so talented; it doesn't detract from his music in the main. However this doesn't protect him from the occasional lapse into areas in which his gifts are -much less marked, shall we say.

Where he often fails is in the faculty of voice. Now, Rufus's voice suits his own material magnificently, it's an intense and commanding, rather single-minded thing. He steers the ocean liners of his opulent compositions with his rudder of a voice, but it doesn't do much for other people's stuff. Repurposing it for old Tin Pan Alley standards, (as he'll do regularly at his shows and at tribute concerts) Wainwright cannot call upon any natural agility to negotiate the often jazzy inflections of that ouvre. So Rufus Rufus Rufus (his album-length cover of Judy Garland's live Judy at Carnegie Hall) sees Rufus fog and fudge his way through some of the best songs ever written. Not a hugely flattering album.

His single biggest gaffe though came last year with the ghastly Robbie Williams collaboration, “Swings Both Ways” -a song that heads straight for the past, aiming for the heftless charm the of the best of the swing era. It misses. And the scale of the mistake is most appreciable again in the live context. I mean, RW and RW performed the song at the Palladium recently dressed in a pair of matching pink suits. With matching pink top hats. Who is that performance for? What function does it serve other than to show how comfortable Williams is with his sexuality, and how natural Wainwright is with a genuinely famous person? That performance, together with lyrics referencing the Khyber Pass and fruited cakes, amounts to the message: Isn't being gay a frivolous thing? If it was funny it wouldn't be so tough to take, but it's no “Gay Messiah”.

But it's Rufus' celebration of Old Hollywood and its glories which is most telling. It tells of Rufus' hankering for some of the old gold dust to glitter his own “self-consciously” tilted diadem. It is plainly the case that he seeks a more financially rewarding career, as well as one which suffers from enhanced notoriety. Many of his songs make overt references to fame, and to Hollywood even. On the title track to his 2007 album Release The Stars he opines: “Oh, can't you see all the good that celebrity can do for those in the dark?” before hedging his bet with: “Yes of course, I am speaking in metaphors for something more in your heart.” But a definite romanticism is to be found in his treatments of fame. Cut from his most recent album of original material “Sometimes You Need” sees him singing earnestly: “Sometimes a movie star’s eyes gets you through the love and the lies.”

This seeking enterprise is hindered by not only his misjudgements but also by that oppressive thing: greatness. A song like “Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk” has many of the surface features which hit songs have. A multifaceted cadence that enriches the verses with plaintive and wandering qualities, has differing permutations coming every few seconds. The trouble is the vocals show too much morphological variation, and where the average listener is ever so impatiently awaiting the hard-hitting chorus, Rufus is going from a major to minor key with monarchical assurance.

Around the time of his third album Wainwright had the task of following arguably his most pop oriented album to date, Poses. He did so by unveiling a 30-song double album, boldly entitled Want. The record company were appalled, and a hasty compromise was arranged with the albums being split into two releases separated by a year. These two halves nevertheless cohere marvellously, and represent some of the lushest and most overpowering music of any mainstream artist you'd care to name. The big thing about Rufus is, what successes he has, they come from his grandiosity.

More recent times have seen Rufus bouncing back with a Mark Ronson produced stab at the mainstream. Out of the Game is a fresh experience on first listen, as Ronson's influence makes everything shinier. The problem is the effect is shallow whereas Wainwright's songs are deep, capacious things. Minor meddling with scratchy guitar riffs and shark-hopping synthesizers isn't going to give an artist of his stripe mass appeal overnight. His two preceding projects were an album of sophisticated piano and voice compositions (some of which -“Zebulon”, “Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now”, and “Who Are You New York?”- rank among his most unique and successful), and his ambitious opera Prima Donna. To squash these works under his weighty aspirations to stardom is a too often a travesty of Rufus Wainwright's talent. But that talent is his to misapply, we can only hope the blundering forays into the celebrity world become less frequent and egregious, and squint in the meanwhile.

The Howling Bells Guide To Surviving In The Music Industry
Kurt Vile Is What The Music World Has Been Waiting For

Rufus' new Best Of is out now.  You can buy it here