Unfollow The Rules (BMG)
Even as someone who has devoted a lot of time – a hell of a lot of time – to Rufus Wainwright’s albums, concerts and interviews for more than 20 years, I was reaching a point of waning interest.
Not exactly with the music, though good rather than stellar albums and fine but compromised concerts have been the norm in recent times and a little bit of outright excellence was something we could all get behind. Instead it was with the narrative of “he’s back to writing/performing songs” which would accompany one of his non-operatic appearances.
That announcement, meant to enthuse the base as it were, was problematic in two ways. It had long been burdened with the whiff of condescension, whether he meant it or not, because one couldn’t help but wonder if he was “back” to make some money and run away again, or maybe earn ungrudging praise away from some hostile opera reviewers in the “lesser” of his avenues of composition.
The idea of being an opera composer was not just a lifelong goal but one loudly and then frequently trumpeted through the bulk of his pop career, culminating in two operas, so far. To some on both sides of the pop/classical divide this looked pretentious – because any kind of ambition like that usually is dismissed as such – though unschooled but enthusiastic opera fans (like me) thought they could see genuine talent and potential now learning on the job in full view of the world, even if he was not going to be a giant in this area.
The second problem is that it was never entirely clear if his heart was as into the pop writing as it was the classically-inclined work (which included a halfway house of Shakespeare sonnets set to his music). As I said earlier, the songs and shows weren’t bad at all, but they lacked an element – Passion? Intent? Belief? – that would take them beyond that, and occasionally the feeling of “look, a big pop hook!! Happy?” made some songs feel forced.
Which brings us to Unfollow The Rules and my expectations of something merely decent, as once again comparisons in the pre-release material were made to his first and most pop-focused recordings, which like this one were made in Los Angeles, and the sainted figure of Joni Mitchell in her melodic pop pomp was evoked both directly and indirectly in relation to Wainwright, now a resident of Laurel Canyon, her old stomping ground.
Those expectations of mine have been confronted by the fact that this album is actually very good: containing music that comfortably draws on his myriad influences (including nods to his own work) without ever feeling like slumming in one or slurring another; his most committed singing in a good while; and lyrics which explore a genuinely adult life from more perspectives than resistance or denial.
(To that last point, heading towards two decades with his husband, the one-time romantically peripatetic Wainwright explains the point of the whole damn thing without acid or agony when, after telling us that “Only the people that love may dream/In the world of the silent scream”, he sings “Love means go ahead and do it/Love means go on and say it/Love means go ahead and say it/Everything”.)
The album begins with its two most recognisable pieces of Wainwright pop, Trouble In Paradise emerging from the chrysalis of the firmly slapped drums with interlocking layers of voices, sly guitar and the drag of summer heat, and Damsels In Distress, which really shows the impact of never-knowingly-under-producing producer Mitchell Froom as the thickly arranged sound (acoustic guitar built on by west coast choir, strings, handclaps, resonating electric and a little flourish of quasi-Spanish, guitar) feels as light as the deceptively easy melody.
And later the casual nightclub duo of You Ain’t Big and Peaceful Afternoon feel like an unlikely blend of folk/country, dramatic pop and cabaret – or what you might have once thought of as the perfect alignment a McGarrigle-Wainwright. All four of these songs align as moments of joy in some way.
However, the first marker that this will be one of the upper tier Wainwright albums – which I at least judge by the standard of the ballads - comes in the eyes-lowered but not mordant title track which deals with pain, while soaring away from it, and hope, while not letting go of the ache.
The lingering touch of lieder can be felt in this song’s evolving melody – as it can be in the tightly wound My Little You - but it wears its classical cloak easily, never feeling heavy at all. Less successfully, This One’s For The Ladies (That LUNGE), where Wainwright’s affection for 19th century Italian romantics is unleashed, only just manages to balance its competing impulses of excess and ethereality.
A better blend of elaborate pop and more contemporary opera can be found in the tensions and turmoil of Early Morning Madness and in the more flamboyant counterpoints – I see your prickling strings and raise you a jagged guitar! - of Hatred, both of which lyrically stand adjacent to, without having to name, the rising tide of right wing governments around the world.
Bad news exists here, certainly, but it doesn’t define it. Bomantical Man, which is more in the manner of mid-20th century American song, and the shimmering slice of late ‘60s elegance that is Only The People That Love, carry the centre of the album with more gracefulness, extending their arms to wrap around you.
And Alone Time closes the record with a melody of comfort, a lyric of support (“I need a little begone time/But don’t worry I will be back baby/To get you”) and a wave of gentle insistence in the arrangement of piano and voices.
So you’ve heard Rufus Wainwright is back with pop songs? Yes, it’s true. Better yet, his heart and hunger is back too.