I don’t often know when to have that last cookie. I eat a few, and then a few more, and before I know it I’ve overdone it. I get so caught up in the flavor and the pleasure of the experience that I forget how bad I feel afterward. Of course, some people are able to live their lives without that kind of guilt. These people live by the simple code that `some is good, more is better.’ In this post 9/11 world, the idea of `excess’ was only gauche for a brief time, but nowhere has excess been as blatant as in Rufus Wainwright’s latest album, Release the Stars. On this record, Wainwright eschews the tradition of the hushed acoustic singer / songwriter styles of confessional lyrics for a grand, bombastic and operatic take on matters of personal import.
I’ve been a Rufus Wainwright fan for a while now. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is a sublime pop track about addictions that has a flair for subtlety. There is, however, nothing subtle about Release the Stars. The album hits you square in the face with bloated production, over instrumentation and self-indulgence from song one and never really lets up. The Arcade Fire recently avoided discussing themes of their latest album in a magazine interview. They felt their listeners would get it on their own. Wainwright seems to take a different approach with his new album, removing all aspects of fan interpretation. Something similar happened at the Sasquatch festival recently as Portland’s the Blow explained the origin of every song, no matter how simple or universal the lyrics actually were. Those who previously took the lyrics to heart were now left out in the cold, wanting to relate rather than be told a personal story.
There’s no denying that Wainwright is incredibly talented. His operatic leanings, flair for the dramatic and knack for intricate songwriting all have led toward his continued success. But, with over fifty contributors to the music of Release the Stars, even the Polyphonic Spree and I Am Barcelona are shaking their heads. I suppose it’s ironic that the first track is dubbed “Do I Disappoint You” after this lengthy introduction. Gershwin-esque horns, sweeping strings and a host of busy instruments clog up the middle of this song so much that you simply start to feel uncomfortable and slightly manic. “Going to a Town” is a better change of pace, being a song about the problems our singer-hero has about America. “Between My Legs” is the absolute epitome of the previously mentioned excess. Rufus again gluts the composition with too many sounds, a campy spoken word portion by actress Sian Phillips (you’d recognize her from both Dune and Clash of the Titans) and an ending ripped off from the campiest and most overblown figure in musical theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then there’s “Tulsa,” a song written for and about Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Killers, after their meeting in that particular city. Do we care? Is anyone out there going to be able to relate to this track other than Flowers? Have we become so forgiving of our musical heroes that we allow songs in the forms of either personal ads or gossip tidbits?
Rufus Wainwright is somewhat the male equivalent of Tori Amos. Each will always have their rabid cult fanbase, each of whom will be more involved in the act of artist worship than in interpreting more obtuse lyrics to fit their own lives. But the discerning music fan will think that neither artist has trumped the success of their respective first two albums. I don’t suppose you could blame Wainwright for the self-important nature of this album. He’s been lavished with attention recently, mostly due to his recreation of the classic 1961 Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall concerts, even swiping her `world’s greatest entertainer’ tag for the posters. He is consistently listed as one of the most preeminent gay icons in the world, and thus his is under even more scrutiny. Fans of Wainwright who revel in excess, those for whom `more is better,’ will certainly laud this collection of songs. He’s a gifted performer for sure, but he probably shouldn’t have reached for that last cookie.
Rufus Wainwright- Want One
Ducan Sheik- White Limousine
Various Artists- Red, Hot + Blue