Album Reviews

Rufus Wainwright – Folkocracy

(BMG) UK release date: 2 June 2023

Turning 50 is, if you’re Rufus, a good excuse to bring famous friends and family round to make a new album inspired by the sort of music he listened to while growing up

Rufus Wainwright - Folkocracy Reaching the age of 50 is a time for reflection, to take stock, maybe have a small celebration, and look ahead to the next stage of life. And, if you’re Rufus Wainwright, it’s also a good excuse to bring loads of your famous friends and family round to yours and make a new album inspired by the sort of music he listened to while growing up.

The Canadian singer reaches that particular milestone in July of this year, and Folkocracy has been advertised as a birthday present to himself. It’s pretty much a covers album, with Wainwright and a very starry guest list reinterpreting a number of traditional folk songs, together with a Neil Young song, and even revisiting his own songbook at times.

In fact, there are throwbacks to all stages of Wainwright’s career on Folkocracy. The majestic swell of strings that open his cover of Peggy Seeger‘s Heading For Home are reminiscent of his finest work, Want One – the addition of a tasteful banjo and the rich vocals of John Legend add another dimension to the song completely.

One example of the calibre of guest stars on Folkocracy is the rendition of The Mamas and The Papas‘ Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon). As well as Wainwright on lead, he’s backed up by Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Sheryl Crow and folk legend Chris Stills – the end result is a perfect facsimile of the ’60s ‘valley sound’, with the three guests providing some perfect harmonies.

Not many people in showbusiness have such a starry contact book than Wainwright, and that’s reflected in the variety of the names on display. Some of these names are obvious (Hush Little Baby is a family reunion with sisters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche) while the cover of Neil Young‘s Harvest feels like a meeting of minds with Andrew Bird and Stills.

Folkocracy’s at its best though when it throws some curveballs the listener’s way. Wainwright’s 2007 Going To A Town is reimagined with the beautifully haunting vocals of ANOHNI, and it sounds even better and more poignant than the original. There’s even room for Nicole Scherzinger, and if you weren’t expecting to hear the former Pussycat Doll contributing vocals to a 19th century Hawaiian folk song, than the breezy, unobtrusive Kaulana Nā Pua may just surprise you.

David Byrne also pops up on a version of Moondog‘s High On A Rocky Ledge, and he vocally gels with Wainwright very effectively, even if the arrangement is a bit too much like a lullaby to make too much of an impression. It’s Folkocracy’s main issue to be honest – everything is treated with such reverence, that most of the album sounds very tasteful rather than thrilling.

However, there’s no denying the beauty of Wainwright’s piano playing on the Irish protest song Arthur McBride, even if it does run to over seven minutes long, and there’s a touching family reunion (including an appearance from Wainwright’s late mother Kate‘s trademark banjo) on the closing Wild Mountain Thyme, featuring aunt Anna McGarrigle, cousin Lily Lanken and another outing for sisters Martha and Lucy.

It all stays just on the right side of self-indulgent, although like most albums consisting mainly of cover versions, there are peaks and troughs. For such a milestone birthday though, you certainly don’t begrudge Wainwright spoiling himself like this.

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