You’ve got to hand it to Rufus Wainwright. It’s hard to imagine another artist with the chutzpah to dress up in drag as the pre-Raphaelite figure of the Lady Of Shallot on the album cover, and then proceed to kick off that album with a six minute operatic prayer sung completely in Latin.
Of course, Wainwright gets away with it because… well, because he’s Rufus Wainwright. Last year’s Want One was like nothing else released in 2004, full of immense ballads and powerful string sections, topped by Wainwright’s distinctive, soaring, versatile vocals. It was an extraordinary record, and as it turns out, there was enough material recorded to compile this companion piece – filled, as Wainwright himself says, with “the weird stuff”.
There’s no doubt that Rufus Wainwright is an acquired taste. Yet it’ll be difficult to find another record which is as ambitious, as compelling and as affecting as Want Two is. Sure, it swings perilously close to being over the top at times (the nine-minute Old Whore’s Diet will test the hardiest of souls while Agnus Dei, while being gloriously atmospheric, is a bit too long), but even Wainwright’s failures are infinitely more interesting than most people’s.
It’s a mark of the variety on offer that Agnus Dei sits side by side alongside Wainwright’s most accessible moment to date, The One I Love. Here, he keeps things simple, just sticking to a beautifully rolling guitar line that gives the song an unstoppable momentum. It may not be the most striking song on the album, but it’s one of the best.
Elsewhere, things are rather more lush and orchestral. Memphis Skyline is a moving tribute to Wainwright’s rival and friend, the late Jeff Buckley (“Always hated him for the way he looked… then came Hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia for me”) while The Art Teacher is just heartbreakingly beautiful. Here, Wainwright takes the guise of a middle aged woman looking back on an unrequited teenage infatuation with a teacher. It’s fragile, sparse and desperately moving.
The most striking track on the album though has to be Gay Messiah. Wainwright has always been frank and open about his homosexuality but this is his most explicit song yet. An imagining of the coming to earth of a ’70s gay porn icon, “wearing tube socks with style” while Wainwright plays “Rufus The Baptist”, the orchestration lends the song a dramatic air while the lyrics are sure to upset the Religious Right back in the United States. That, my friends, is a Very Good Thing.
Wainwright’s mother, aunt and equally talented sister Martha all crop up on the evocative Hometown Waltz, the imagery of “antique shops and alcoholic homosexuals” in the family’s hometown of Montreal being accompanied by an atmospheric accordion riff. Little Sister, meanwhile, could almost be described as chamber pop with its string orchestra perfectly framing the song.
In fact, Old Whore’s Diet is the only instance where it all goes astray, the one time that Wainwright’s idiosyncratic ambition comes crashing down in a bit of a mess. It’s laudable that he’ll only do things his way, but this is the only moment where he comes completely unstuck.
Overall though, Want Two is a perfect companion piece to Want One. It may, as Wainwright says, contain the “weird stuff”, but anyone who wants to be challenged and inspired by an exceptional artist will be thrilled. Initial copies come with a bonus live DVD too, which makes this a compulsory purchase for all Rufus fanatics.