Try to remember (if your age permits) the vastness of the world opening up to you when you transitioned from listening to Give ’em Enough Rope to London Calling. Too far back, youngsters? How about when you graduated from 1999 to Purple Rain? I have a feeling I’m still losing some of you. Ok, remember the first time you listened to Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and The Queen is Dead? Now to catch the rest of you. Put yourself in the place you were when you first listened to OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Remember what that was like? That feeling that you were sharing with the artist was something truly life changing and unique? The feeling that boundaries and genres and classifications didn’t exist, and there was just you and the music, together, entwined, inseparable. Too corny? Maybe.
Rufus Wainwright’s third album, Want One is just such a graduation. His sophomore album, Poses showed signs of brilliance in such songs as “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and his father’s “One Man Guy.” But Want One stands high above his previous work and is sure to break Mr. Wainwright into stardom. Not only has his songwriting matured, but he enlisted the help of one of the best (fairly) new producers available, Marius de Vries. (Bjork, U2/Passengers, Neil Finn).
The album starts with “Oh What a World”, the song that most will be familiar with as it is previewed on his website and was featured in commercials for the album which ran on Bravo for ad breaks in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Not a bad move considering the context of the song, but it disappoints me, as it probably does Rufus, that we live in a world in which we have to target supposedly “gay” material to gay-friendly markets. Why can’t the commercial also run on the Spike network, or in commercial breaks for Monday Night Football? Music has always been universal in my estimation, but unfortunately the headline of the New York Times still doesn’t read “Life is Beautiful”. The orchestration of “Oh What a World” is breathtaking, leading into passages of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, with layered vocal tracks making the sound fuller and more expansive.
Here’s a motivation for buying the album rather than burning or downloading: you get a commentary track on each song with a secret link to his website! Not only that, but you get access to two bonus tracks on the website, “Es Mus Sein” and “Velvet Curtain Rag”. Finally the big music companies are taking a page out of the book of DVD and offering something besides the product itself.
In these commentary tracks he lets us know about how he wrote “I Don’t Know What It Is” at a party for The Strokes, and how he felt stymied by the frantic running about in the rock star world. We also are privy to his cross-pollination of television pop culture, repeated themes, old musicals, classical snippets, Beatles-like codas, and the holocaust. Rufus’ commentaries are as open and honest as his music. What is ultimately revealed is that his songs are more than simple pop songs; they are poetry set to music, poetry that invites analyzation and meanings below the surface.
“Movies of Myself” is a great pop song about his love/muse, an unnamed man; although what is great about this song, and defies classification, is that he never mentions gender, so the love song is truly universal. Following is probably the prettiest song on the record, the aptly titled “Pretty Things”, a song stripped of all the programming, orchestration and enhancements that accompanied the previous material.
From the simple and stripped down to the complex and bombastic, “Go or Go Ahead” is Rufus’ most honest work to date. The song is born of his descent into the world of crystal meth. We start slow and methodical and then escalate into rock excess much like Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”. If one song has to serve as an indication of how successful the album will be it is this song, soaring and majestic, destined to be a classic among singer-songwriters.
“Vibrate” is a song about waiting for a phone call from that special someone in your life and realizing that you might be too old to be doing the things you do together. Anyone over thirty and unmarried knows what this feels like. Plus it has a great line, “But still I never ever feel from you”, referring to his phone being set to vibrate.
“14th Street” is a wonderful new kind of love song. In it, he sings of falling in love with straight men that end up breaking his heart, although he knows initially that they are merely paying attention to him because all men love attention no matter who it is from. The chorus has Rufus pleading, “Why’d you have to break all my heart, couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?”
“Harvester of Hearts” continues in the vein of love songs without gender. He could have easily said “If a man should ever like a man, then a man should like you”, and I would have said `more power to him!’ but he doesn’t. He sings, “If a person should ever like a person, then a person should like you.” He doesn’t compromise his integrity because he’s never been secretive or dishonest about it (at least during his career).
The title track is the first he wrote for the album and expresses what he set out to do with the album and his own career direction. “I don’t want, no I really don’t want to be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen. I just want to be my Dad, with a slight sprinkling of my mother.” He expresses his simple wants in life, denying anything grander than that simplicity, and like everyone else, will settle for love.
Like almost every other poet, author, artist, and singer-songwriter, Rufus wrote a song about 9/11. His is called “11:11” and is somewhat uplifting. He is thankful for himself and his loved ones being alive, and feels that the time spent apart from those loved ones is time wasted. This then leads into another heartfelt personal song, this one about his father, Loudon Wainwright III, folk singer and actor. He recounts the fights and hard times he and his father went through to end up with the realization that his father truly loved him, and he his father.
Listening to Want One is pure joy. A testament to how good the album is resides in a story from my workplace. I work in a retail establishment that has a music department in which we get ten to fifteen CD’s a month to play in-store. Most of the time, no matter how good the album might be, the songs start to wear on you, to become fingernails on chalkboard, teeth on tin foil, fingers on a balloon. And after listening to Elvis’ #1’s, the greatest hits of the Beach Boys, and Rosanne Cash’s latest atrocity, I can begin to imagine why people snap. But Want One is on our store’s play list, and after hearing it every day for the past month, I still love this album. If that isn’t proof, I don’t know what is.