Release the Stars
here’s something desperate and self-destructive about Rufus Wainwright. Perhaps it’s his family history, although given the level of renown he now enjoys I think we can finally agree on the irrelevance of nepotism as an ingredient for his success—I’ve never listened to his father or his mother, and only briefly to his sister.
No, it’s something else. The Want albums almost laid it on the line; Rufus likes a little excess in all areas, whether it be too many boys, too many drugs, or too many instruments, but this ostentatious consumption is a distraction. He’s looking for something.
Much of Release the Stars (executive produced by Neil Tennant and laden with guests; Richard Thompson, Joan As Policewoman, Sian Phillips) starts quietly, forlornly, and then builds and builds and builds to triumphant, sky-kissing epic finales laden with trumpets, massed strings, timpani rolls, and the cries of dying blue whales and imploding suns, as if Rufus is trying to tell us that he’s found it. But all this triumph, this lascivious celebration, suggests perhaps that his happy, nay ecstatic, act is merely an effort to convince himself as much as us.
Any eleventh-grade psychologist can see it in his song titles, of course—“Do I Disappoint You,” “Nobody’s Off the Hook,” “Not Ready to Love”—but the key to understanding Rufus isn’t found by analyzing his innermost insecurities; it’s watching him battle them out in public, seeing him tear himself in half, decked in lederhosen and dripping in sweat, tears, champagne, or cum depending on the result.
And the results are often wonderful. At the top of his game (the first four tracks on Want One, to my mind), Rufus is a frighteningly gifted melodicist (as well as a terrific singer). Even here, with nothing quite as spectacular as those sequential peaks, he paints lines so easily that they seem remembered rather than composed, be they daubed across the huge, orchestral canvas of “Do I Disappoint You” or the more intimate (but still far from minimal) “Going to a Town.”
It helps, of course, that he is backed by arrangements the likes of which we don’t encounter much these days; beautifully rendered and dynamic orchestras, blues licks, pianos, and brass armies back his every word. A lesser singer would be overwhelmed. The overt, confrontationally camp moments of previous albums are not quite absent (there is something close to a children’s choir singing about “holy water,” “chaos,” and “destruction” on the opening song, while another number is titled “Between My Legs”), but they are less aggressive, measured with an amount of control which suggests, far more than the massed fanfares and triumphalism, that Rufus is a happier man than he was five years ago.
As such the epic-beyond-epic “Slideshow” and the indulgent aside of “Tulsa” are made more palatable by the whispering delicacy of “Leaving for Paris No. 2,” wherein it becomes apparent that it’s not himself that Rufus is out-of-love with so much as America. By the final, title track Rufus is very nearly doing a turn as a jazz singer, eulogizing Hollywood’s decline, gathering a whirlwind of pomp behind him to add ironic weight to his simmering and then boiling protestations.
There has always been a sense that Rufus Wainwright is capable of a little more if only he subsumed his hang-ups. With Release the Stars he is starting to emerge on the other side of a protracted process of self-realization-through-excess; with luck, he’ll be all the better for it in future.