Oh Rufus, you naughty trend bucker you!
Oh Rufus, you naughty trend bucker you!
Rufus Wainwright’s strange musical world wasn’t entirely alien to my ears yet, whilst giving this record it’s first listen, I swiftly realised that I would have to purposely set aside some quality time and give this particular album some serious perusal. Ideally I prefer to lend new music my ears without necessarily knowing too much about the artist, therefore hopefully precluding any personal biases that I may have tucked away in my subconscious. Here, I could not start this piece without finding out more about the driving force behind this weird and wonderful musical composition. (Another editorial deadline gone belly up!) I have now listened to “Want Two” several times in its entirety and I still don’t know exactly what to make of it. So here is my still intrigued, confused, and still ‘growing on me’ review of “Want Two.”
The first listen was a bizarre experience. It was a normal enough Thursday evening in February. The cat was snoozing après dinner in front of the fire, Boro’ were playing away in Europe on the telly, (did I say normal?), my lasagne was cooking in the oven, the missus was ironing and complaining about my general, preoccupied dopiness (don’t forget the garlic bread this time!), nothing out of the ordinary or untoward until I realised I could make good use of the hour’s cooking time and decided to stick Rufus on.
The opening track “Agnus Dei” begins with a series of creaking noises, followed by a kind of earthy pan pipe sound (which is actually most likely a tortured violin or, feasibly, some sort of odd wind assisted stringed instrument?) and then a haunting tribal chant (in Latin!) floats in over some serious stringed orchestration. Just as my racing (over active?) imagination was taking me to a steamy tropical forest camp fire setting, with smoking peyote pipes, semi naked savage girls, witchdoctors and voodoo, suddenly the song transforms (about 4 minutes in!) and I’m in an Edwardian drawing room in a well to do London townhouse. Black and white chequer board floor, wood panelled walls, a string quartet in the corner, waif like young women in ball gowns coquettishly chatting with camp men in waistcoats, buckled patent shoes and horrendously tight trousers. Just as the butler and some French maid serving wenches were about to appear in glorious Technicolor in my head, the exasperated dulcet tones of “Wat is dat voor a tyfus herrie?” coming from behind the ironing board brought me crashing back to ground zero! In fairness to my better half (who is well enough schooled in all my musical whims) the words “this is not pop music” were also giving my synapses a battering!
The second track “The One You Love” is as close to straight forward guitar pop as this album gets, yet it too has an mesmerising intricate beat, a disconcerting melody, a choral vocal track over a clunky ragtime piano and a very odd climatic ending. “Peach Trees” begins as a stripped bare “bass strum, Nick Drake-like” ditty but goes on to unconsciously evolve over 6 minutes or so into an odd, trippy, countrified madrigal! I’m now getting images of smoke filled, underground Victorian opium dens in my head!
I don’t want to over use the adjective ‘odd’ in this review but considering the lack of obvious commercial appeal and the fact that pure, unadulterated oddness knows no bounds throughout this entire album I wasn’t surprised when I was politely implored to employ my headphones as early as track three! (I am often surprised just how vicious the Dutch language can be. I will never be able to give “vreselijk” the bilious emphasis it deserves!) I suppose to the uninitiated “Want Two” must sound like a soundtrack to a Greek tragedy and may well put someone off their cheesy pasta and warmy up bread!
My ears and senses now enclosed in Rufus world I decided to surf, research, make notes and listen at the same time. Mistake. The music took me over.
I hovered on the “Google’ search box for 10 minutes as my senses were bombarded by “Little Sister” and then “The Art Teacher (live).” Now I’m not entirely a seat of my pants writer so I had already done some homework, quite liking predecessor “Want One”, (recorded at the same time as these songs last year) but in truth finding it blatant in it’s eccentricity and a little pompous. I had, a little hastily, dismissed him as ” yet another yank singer/songwriter/troubadour hoping to be voice of his generation.” I had him neatly stored away with Jeff Buckley, The Divine Comedy, Tindersticks, Elliott Smith, Tori Amos and Belle & Sebastien. I had also heard a fair amount of old man Loudon the third’s songbook and being loosely in the Dylan/Young mode had really liked it. However, I could find no reference points for these tracks. I really didn’t know what to think. John Peel is gone. God rest his soul. Will this ever be played on the radio? I have to write about this? Oh Rufus, you naughty trend bucker you!
“Little Sister” sounds like a Mozart waltz with a gruff Judy Garland vocal from a George Gershwin show tune over the top! “The Art Teacher(live)” is either genius or insanity. The music could be from a ballet, with what I can only describe as a kinky, breathless, sex pest vocal track! I enjoyed it but it made me feel uneasy. Is this song from the point of view of a male or female? Either way here Rufus sounds like a dirty old man! (Do you reckon he knows who Wilfred Bramble is?) I was well aware of the fact that Rufus prefers the company of his own gender. In fact every bloody article I had read about Rufus mentioned his ‘overt sexuality.’ As if his lack of real commercial success could be attributed to his seemingly ‘overt sexuality!’ Q said that in the gay icon stakes he didn’t have the cuddly queenliness of Elton John! Isn’t that the last adjective that enters your head when you think of Elton John? Do they really have a subconscious competition among themselves to determine the best queen? (It’s always Kylie Minogue isn’t it?) Maybe Rufus had stimulated my imagination to overload. Maybe my mind is prone to distraction when derailed, but the image of my art teacher, nicknamed Oul’ Bum Scratcher (as most of the class had witnessed him absentmindedly tweaking a carbuncle on his fat hairy builder’s arse) involved in a homosexual love act with Rufus in his frock (see album cover) on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum, with a naked Elton John sketching the entire scene in pastels on the pavement, had now occupied my muddled consciousness!
Garlic bread time!
The fiddle and banjo picking Irish lilt of “Hometown Waltz” was to be my decongestant. Burp! With a full belly I did warm to this track first listen. The lyric is attention-grabbing and I was beginning to hear something soothing in his baritone that I hadn’t appreciated before. “This Love Affair” follows. I’m back in imagery land. This time a dreary day “Brideshead Revisited” funeral drenched in gloomy melodrama. Again confusion. Sonically this is not exciting music. Stimulating? Yes, undoubtedly. Enjoyable? My jury was well and truly out.
“Gay Messiah” follows. On this first listen, the song that probably stood out most. The opening line “He will then be reborn from 1970’s porn….” had me captivated. Some background choral “big mama” harmonising coupled with Dylanesque tempo changes and strumming give it a much more accessible feel. I didn’t have time to consider what he meant by “Better pray for yourself as the Gay Messiah is coming” before “Memphis Skyline” had me again wondering what planet this man comes from! It sounds as if Billy Joel and Edith Piaff’s bastard hermaphrodite son decided to record a piano based number in a haunted stately home when he was broken hearted and suicidal! Who does this appeal to again? The terminally ill? Hide all sharp objects time! In fact the intro’ to following track “Waiting For A Dream” doesn’t really get any cheerier, the echoey drifting in and out of consciousness vocal exudes dark surrealism but then, suddenly, a vaguely poppy drum loop appears in the background, lightening the gloom to degree, but again the lyric is anti war and anti Bush so therefore about destruction, desolation, ruin and so forth. Good thing we have an electric oven!
“Crumb By Crumb” has a much more fanciful feel, suggesting some grandiose Brian Wilson influence. However, for some reason I was thinking about the jazzy cocktail party ditties of Neil Innes and Richard Stilgoe! Just as I thought my psyche could withstand no more twists and turns the album climaxes with the 8 minute “Old Whore’s Diet.” A bizarre mishmash of Jazz, Blues, Reggae, Calypso (back to the steamy forest), Caribbean Cabaret, Operetta, a mournful violin solo over a jolty Sicilian folk tune, 50’s Crooning, Pub Singing and a performance from Pavarotti and Kiri TeKanawa near the end! (Actually it is his gender bender pal and fellow Canadian, Antony.) Yup, my senses were scrambled, and I was baffled!
Two weeks on, I’m infinitely more familiar with the record, but I can’t say I’m any the wiser as to how I ultimately feel about it.
Like the author the music is extraordinary and complex. I have deciphered more of the meaning from the lyrics and can appreciate this man’s undoubted talents. The big orchestral sound dovetailing with his brutally personal singing gives his recorded work a lush theatrical feel. The quality of the music construction is awesome, it is exquisitely arranged and filmic. Unsurprisingly, (also considering he is signed to Dreamworks) he has contributed to many big movie soundtracks, including The Aviator, Bridget Jones, Shrek and Moulin Rouge. He has a luscious velvety voice, a supreme sense of atmosphere and from his lyrics I can feel depth and intelligence. I only wish the bugger would cheer up a bit! Is being Canadian really that bad?
Sadly, I must concur with the many writers before me, his homosexuality does seem to be the recurring theme throughout his music. Why does he so readily play the doomed romantic victim? Every melody is drenched in yearning. As he unpacks his soul in his words his apparent heartbreak often takes on a menacing tone, full of bitterness. His musical parents separated when he was a child and his sexual coming out when he was a teenager are obviously important character changing landmarks in his life, but does it necessarily follow that he should wilfully make music that no matter how beautiful, has no pop hooks, no thrills, no shock and awe and ultimately, no joy?
Rufus went through rehab for drug dependence and sex addiction. In my book anybody who binges on crystal meth’ with sufficient fervour to bring on temporary blindness is rock’n’roll and deserves some respect! However. Sex addiction! Sorry, but that concept is so self indulgent and moreover so stomach churningly American, I doubt if there is enough vomit in the world to do it justice! Why are well educated rich kid Americans always the group of people most prone to contracting this ailment? I mean, what are the symptoms of sex addiction? Spontaneous masturbating in public? Does it begin with one innocent gang bang with a few friends after the pub and next thing you know you’re hooked? Do you start with one shag a day, then two, three…..? Will I get some time off work if I tell the quack I feel the need to copulate all the time? Please excuse my village ways, but the concept of sex addiction is utterly preposterous. Save yourself some hard earned and get a part time job in the vibrant US adult movie industry, or alternatively join the Navy, Mr. spoilt brat Wainwright!
Now I’ve got that rant off my chest, I reckon I have identified the core of my reservations about this album. I cannot decide if the music, like the author, is a tad preposterous and most damningly of all, a tad contrived? Is he Frank Zappa weird or Weird Al Jankovic weird?
Maybe I haven’t listened to (any) enough French film noir soundtracks and too much Black Sabbath. Maybe I haven’t been schooled in the classics sufficiently to appreciate this music fully. Maybe I’m totally missing the point of it all. Bottom line, it comes down to when will I find occasion or indeed inclination to listen to this album again once I’ve submitted this review. At present I can see me burning a Rufus compilation CD for the car, including a good few from this album, and then never playing a full Rufus record again.
If you are looking for music with a challenge and don’t mind artists having a ridiculously idiosyncratic lack of commercial ambition then this album is for you.
Rufus, my dear boy, I am glad to have made your acquaintance. You are one in a million. God Bless you and all who sail in you!
When he’s gone, his epitaph will unquestionably read: Did It My Way!
Words : Bill McMullan