As I wandered the aisles of one of my favorite stores in NYC, I caught the sound of ethereal, harmonious (but slightly off-kilter), and strangely pleasing melodies wafting through the air. Music is often played in stores as you browse, shop, read, etc., but it is the rare tune that makes you stop what you're doing and truly listen, and attend. I became fascinated with trying to figure this song out; to understand it both musically and emotionally. I was intrigued enough to walk over to the cash register and ask the comely young woman behind the desk what she was playing. I found out it was a young musician named Rufus Wainwright, who I'd certainly never heard of before.
She showed me the CD case (it was a promo copy, marked NOT FOR SALE; she had some connections at a small radio station or some such): it was called "Poses". The cover showed a sleek black and white letterboxed photo of a strikingly handsome twenty-something male in profile, with sizable triangular sideburns. Some jealous, insecure corner of my mind cursed him; another incredibly handsome musician with loads of talent to boot. Some guys have all the luck. The women probably crawled all over this guy. Jealousy is an ugly thing.
It was his second or third album, she told me. I was clearly so into it that she wrote it down for me. Part of the fun of the interaction was this slightly flirtatious sharing of music, and her helping me discover this new artist. Best to keep things professional and I really did like this music.
I thought I'd check this CD out at some point, but funds had been low, so I filed it away in my brain under "Books and CDs to get when you have a little more spending cash." One other customer at the store, overhearing my conversation with the lovely little sprite, told us that this Rufus Wainwright fellow lived in NYC, played here often, and in fact lived in his building, which was that famous hotel that had housed, and still does, many famous musicians and writers...
Days passed; the business card with the info about the CD sat atop my old turntable/stereo, awaiting the day when I would pick it up again and resume my quest. At a signing at the Virgin Megastore one weekday evening, I walked past a rack of new CD's. Having been at the store for over 2 hours, I hadn't looked at any CDs at all. This first rack I saw proudly displayed multiple rows of the selfsame Wainwright CD, strewn across the table like a peacock's bold feathers. I took it as a sign and bought the damned thing, even though my financial situation hadn't improved much.
Later the next evening, I ran into that same girl at a literary reading. Told her I had bought the CD. A fun little random connection... I still didn't push the flirting thing. Just didn't intuitively feel like the right thing to do. Anyway, listened to the CD the next day.
"Poses" is almost as great as I thought it was in that store; and that means it's still pretty fucking good. His overall style is kind of a bizarre alchemical synthesis of Elvis Costello, Tori Amos, and Beth Orton. It's folk / alternative / rock / singer-songwriter stuff with a very modern flair. The first song on the CD sets the tone: entitled "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," it reminded me of nothing so much as an Elvis Costello song; a smart, tuneful, catchy, expertly created pop song laced with acerbic and dark lyrics layered under its bright melodies. The song touts those things that Rufus loves but just knows are horrible for him, something we certainly can all relate to. His voice is light and playful, confident and smooth; the song toys with minor, more disturbing versions of the established, bright melody as it progresses.
But it was when he gets to the topic of sex ("And then there's those other things / Which for several reasons we won't mention", which made me laugh) that my perception of Wainwright began to change. The mention of his favorite sexual acts being "a little bit deadly", as well as other lyrics in several songs (a fond mention of "scruffy-faced boys" in the streets, and the self-description "a little bit heiress, a little bit princess") I realized that this was no Casanova of the ladies. Shattered was my envious vision of this Rufus as the modern Jim Morrison archetype, and in its place was a more grounded vision of a very talented gay musician who was brutally honest about enjoying often dangerous sex.
Like the brutally honest Elvis Costello and many other great singer/songwriters of our time, throughout the album Wainwright explores all of the human psyche, not just the bright and sunny parts : lust, excess, obsession, happiness (the search for), life, and the wanton celebration of all of the above.
The exploration of these subjects is always in service of the music, enhancing the pieces with wry personal observations that became all the more interesting when I learned that Rufus himself is very outspoken about being, basically, a complete whore. I learned this from a very hip aunt of mine who reads The New York Press and The Village Voice regularly. Apparently Wainwright believes, as Blake did, that "The road of excess leads to the palace of widsom." Thoughts of the Marquis deSade flared briefly through my head.
I also learned his parents were semi-famous folk/novelty singer-songwriters in the 60s. His father penned "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road," which sounds like "Twist and Shout" of Weird Al or Dr. Demento genre, which I swear I heard a few times back in 7th grade. Despite this embrace of decadence, however, Wainwright clearly has a strong streak of romantic, poetic idealism in him, a contrast that adds to the creative tension in the album.
My interest, though, is first and foremost in Rufus Wainwright's music, which is always bold, always clever, and always musically sophisticated. His ability as a singer/songwriter easily eclipses the risk of his being reduced to any kind of sexual stereotype. The songs often employ a kind of hypnotic version of the famous "Wall of Sound", as layered vocal and instrumental harmonies and back-ups drift through each tune. There are certain songs which could be described as "background music" (in a good way); i.e. the kind of music that you put on while doing such tasks as cleaning the room, organizing piles of papers that have accumulated, reading, doing your homework (if you're a student), and so on. Even though about one-third of the songs can certainly very comfortably fit in that category, they are still strong enough to hold up to intent listening as well.
With such scathing, insightful songs as "California" (wherein Wainwright mocks the decadence of a visit to Hollywood, and manages to treat this often-treaded topic in a new light), the touching "One Man Guy," and the ruminations on fame in "Shadows" ("I could be a great star / But still I'm far from happy"), "Poses" is definitely a CD worth checking out. In the past several days, I heard one longtime Wainwright fan say that "Poses" was the perfect "introduction to Rufus Wainwright" CD. So go get yourself introduced.
Tony Wolf [e-mail]
Rufus Wainwright on the web: Official site
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