xcess, thy name is Rufus. How else do you explain starting the most important album of your career with a 6 minute pseudo-classical drone of a medieval Catholic liturgy, sung in Latin, played with Hungarian instruments? Post Scissor Sisters, post Queer Eye, post Want One (half the hype for Want Two strikes me as being belated praise for its predecessor, which was rather lost amidst record company shenanigans) the world finally seems ready for Rufus Wainwright’s homosexual songcraft, and what does he do? Pushes himself even further into lascivious ostentation, as if he’s daring those who praised him to maintain their affection in the face of his pomposity, seeing how far his charm can carry him before people feel sick.
The word genius gets slung around far too often in popular music discourse, as if every two-bit songwriter who doesn’t hide behind a band, or else visibly and obviously bosses around his band in public, were somehow reinventing the wheel or splitting the atom rather than merely stringing words and notes together. Rufus Wainwright isn’t a genius – he’s a show-off.
Want was conceived as a two-parter almost from the get-go, the second instalment formed as an overblown counterpart to the initial sensory assault when the sessions for that album found Wainwright’s cup flowing over with ideas. But Want One was hardly reserved, shamelessly audacious steals from Ravel’s Bolero orchestrating showtunes about the pace of his life as a gay New Yorker while the cover saw him dressed as a (slain, possibly) knight in shining armour. Want Two has him in costume as a damsel (presumably in distress), the masculine blues of Want One’s sleeve transposed to gaudy pinks, and is even more ostentatious and meandering musically.
Wainwright’s early songs were typified by a compositional tightness that bordered on discipline, but something changed prior to the Want project – a period of serious emotional instability and prolonged drug abuse seems to have fractured his focus. The result is two compellingly overblown records that at times walk a very fine line between inspiring awe and schadenfreude in the listener.
“Hometown Waltz” is short and sweet, melodically taut like the more structured, Broadway-esque numbers from Want One, but then “Gay Messiah” is a provocative paean to a queer Jesus, and contains the line “baptised in cum”. This is not a record for people who voted Bush. It is flamboyant, homosexual, full of drugs, given to drama and cross-dressing, overtly sexual, rambling, indulgent and pretentious. He sounds like a jar of molasses smoking a fag, perched on a velvet cushion in the back of a rapidly crashing car. He’s ludicrous but he’s incredible. He’s utterly laconic and yet all of Broadway is exploding behind him. It’s like Buckley and Sinatra rolled into one – no, someone better than Sinatra, more fulsome, more given to bathos because bathos is much more affecting than pathos when it’s done right, completely through overblown and mawkish and out of the other side into somewhere that most other people are too embarrassed to even try and get to. Rufus Wainwright lives there.
Want Two echoes Want One as you would expect but is more orchestral, looser, more indulgent. Is it the Amnesiac to Want One’s Kid A? Not quite, because it’s a ludicrous comparison, but certainly Want Two is the weaker and less tuneful of the siblings, strings, horns, pipes and choirs distracting attention from the occasionally dirgey and indulgent (but still grandiose) melodies, but by the time “Old Whore’s Diary” rolls round and spends nine minutes unfurling its futurist operatic melancholy tunes are the last thing you’re worried about.
Flamboyant, witty and wise, Rufus Wainwright is undoubtedly a huge talent. In many ways he’s an antidote to the musical and emotional conservatism of the likes of Keane and Athlete, pushing himself and his songs through barriers that terrify other performers. He divides opinion like few before him, and he probably likes it that way. Want Two is somewhere between genius and madness.