Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Album Review – Rufus Wainwright ‘Release the Stars’

Pretentious man: pretentious review.

It’s commonplace amongst critics to point out that Rufus Wainwright divides audiences. His determination to be defined by his sexuality, his innuendo and bad puns, his insistence on holding his notes (keep it breve, Rufus), and his florid compositions mean that some will always be turned off, while others will unquestioningly love everything he puts out. But for the, err, discerning types in the middle, it’s Rufus’ albums that inspire love-hate relationships. Here at GMS, we can consider Rufus Wainwright and Want One as two of the best albums of the past fifteen years, and Poses and Want Two as turgid, dreary messes, while still recognising dull passages in the first two, and flashes of genius in the latter.

With Release the Stars, Rufus treads a path between the focused song-writing that characterises his best work, and the operatic flourishes for which he is more well-known. Backing singers and multifarious musical instruments (in your face, Bright Eyes) are marshalled in support of clear lead vocals and accessible tunes. The influence of executive producer Neil Tenant isn’t immediately apparent in the music (no techno, and secondly, the guy could never sing), but the approach bears several of his hallmarks: radio-friendly pop, undercut by kitchen-sink bile and caustic wit.

Musically, then, Release the Stars is Rufus’ most consistent album: listenable and indeed enjoyable from end to end, without the slow patches or wayward tendencies of his earlier work, though also without some of the surprises. Lyrically, however, this is all over the place: an uneven balance between the political (lead single ‘Going to a Town’) and the personal (‘Tulsa’’s grating, hardly-written come-on to Brandon Flowers of the Killers); and an awkward combination of the familiar New York boho melodrama (the knowingly needy ‘Slideshow’), the Pet Shop Boys’ distinctively-English drollery (opener ‘Do I Disappoint You’), and the ‘Town’ in question – Berlin – whither Rufus has headed, perhaps to dredge up the spirits of Bowie, Iggy, Lou, Nico and Nick Cave.

This leads to a number of frustrating contradictions: on ‘Going to a Town’, Rufus is worried he’s “going to hell for having loved”; on ‘Not Ready To Love’ he’s … you get the picture. Nor is it clear whether he’s addressing the current state of politics or running away from it – or addressing politics by running away from it. Rufus’ contrarian nature used to dominate his music, and provided material for his lyrical self-examination, as on ‘Imaginary Love’ on his debut. Now it’s been herded out of his compositions, and threatens to overbalance his lyrics. Release the Stars is an enjoyable, consistent listen, but there’s nothing as revealing as his most personal work (‘Foolish Love’ or ‘Dinner at Eight’, for example), or as startling as his most bravura compositions (‘Oh What A World’ or ‘Go or Go Ahead’).

Rufus Wainwright – ‘Dinner at Eight’ (Live in Wales, 2006)

Rufus at the Hype Machine

Buy Release the Stars

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