The salient facts of Rufus Wainwright’s family background are now common knowledge. Son of famous folkies Louden Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, brother of Martha; drug problems, homosexuality, countless celebrity fans; it’s all been regurgitated innumerable times in the press and would have grown tiresome were it not for the inspired nature of his music.
Opulent and complex, Want One is the natural successor to Wainwright’s cool eponymous debut album and the elegant decadence of its follow-up, Poses. It’s a gorgeously theatrical celebration of his diverse musical influences, referencing opera, show tunes and Gershwin, often in the same song. In fact there’s frequently so much going on, so many layers, that it feels like it can’t possibly work, that it should really collapse under the weight of its own ambition, and yet it never does.
The Wainwright sound is like dark chocolate: sweet, rich, but probably not to everyone’s taste. Some critics have described his songs as ‘bloated’ and ‘obese’ and it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Opener Oh What A World sets the tone with its simple repeated lyrics unfolding over a backdrop of horns and strings that somehow explodes into a medley of Rhapsody in Blue and the Bolero. It takes over-the-top as its starting block and doesn’t look back. But by the time 14th Street cruises towards its big Broadway finish the majority of listeners still with him will be twirling around their living room in glee and maybe even indulging in the odd chorus-line high kick of their own.
There are further aural treats to be had. Go Or Go Ahead is a darkly epic trip of a song, replete with classical imagery. Vibrate – with its references to mobile phones and Britney Spears – is bound to date quickly but that perhaps is part of the joke in a song about feeling older and out of place. Beautiful child, one of the ‘biggest’ tracks on the album, has this pounding, vaguely Celtic rhythm that just carries you away even though the song seems to have about three separate (big) finishes, which is just greedy.
True, vocally, he doesn’t have the greatest of ranges but when he goes for those low notes, oh my, you really know about it.
The real measure of Wainwright’s talent however comes at the close of the album. Dinner At Eight proves that even when you strip all the layers back, when you take it down to just him and his piano, none of the magic is lost; if anything the power of the piece is heightened.
The song is nothing short of brilliant – a raw, honest trawl through the sourest of father-son relationships. Managing to be both deeply personal and achingly universal at the same time, Wainwright describes his desperate attempts to elicit some kind of emotional reaction from his father, to divine any shred of proof that there’s some love left between them; when he sings: “and daddy, don’t be surprised if you see the tears in my eyes” I defy you not to well up with him.