Be honest, now: when Rufus Wainwright announced in May 2011 that he wanted his next album to be an album of “mainstream pop songs that are danceable,” how many of us quaked in our boots, fearing he might just utterly forsake his grand theatrical, operatic-inspired muse for a stab at vacuous, artless pop?
Pop music can, of course, have considerable depth and meaning, but it can also yield some embarrassingly forgettable dross. The latter, sadly, seems likelier to ascend the charts at present than the former and was Wainwright truly serious about wanting to be a mainstream success? He had, after all, built his career crafting the sort of dense, gorgeously realised baroque pop most songwriters would kill to have the knack for creating.
Back in 2008, Wainwright had made another bid for the mainstream, releasing the Neil Tennant-produced Release The Stars, but his abiding love for ornate instrumentation and complicated melodies meant that he once again succeeded not in cracking the Top 40 but merely consolidating his reputation as perhaps the most fiercely talented and multifaceted performer of his generation. What an abject failure he was, then, by mainstream pop cultural standards, bereft of sure-fire three-minute radio hits but supported by a loyal fanbase, showered with much-deserved critical acclaim and even asked by New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera to pen its next contemporary operatic opus, an invitation that was the realisation of a dream he’d held since boyhood.
What, then, can be said of Out of the Game? It is Wainwright’s first collaboration with UK hotshot DJ and producer Mark Ronson, perhaps best known for his work with Amy Winehouse. It comes two years on from the extraordinary All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, the 2010 album that saw Wainwright briefly abandon his love of lush orchestration and instrumentation for a more stripped-back, bare-bones approach to writing and recording. Coming as it did, in the wake of the death of his beloved mother, Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle, it was a song cycle understandably steeped in meditations on grief, loss and lamentation.
Although largely comprised of original material, three of the album’s recordings were Shakespearean sonnets, and when Wainwright last toured Australia he played shows comprising two distinct sets. One showcased songs from All Days Are Nights and began with audiences being instructed not to applaud until Wainwright had performed the final song and left the stage while the second featured songs drawn from his vast back catalogue.
Wainwright recently said that three key life events inspired the songs on Out of the Game: the 2010 death of his mother, the 2011 birth of his daughter, Viva, and his relationship with his fiancé, German artistic director of Toronto’s Luminato arts and culture festival, Jörn Weisbrodt. As such, the emotions informing these songs run the gamut from the most abject, heartbreaking grief and sorrow to the most gladdening, giddy joy. The result of a cycle of songs that is often as wryly funny and joyous as it is suffused with sadness and loss.
Though Wainwright plays his usual piano and guitar, he is more than ably backed by a crack band boasting, among others, Dap-Kings’ members Thomas Brenneck and Homer Steinweiss, as well as Nick Movshon, long-time collaborator of both Ronson and Winehouse. These are songs that have a fully fleshed out sort of sound that only a band can give. They are as richly imagined and lavishly composed as the best of Wainwright’s work, but they also feature drums, bass, synthesisers and electric guitars.
‘Jericho’ is a gently orchestrated baroque pop confection that seemingly details the demise of a relationship, though Wainwright’s lyrics are simultaneously coy and wrenching. He has said that the overall aesthetic, both lyrical and musical, that he had in mind while writing Out of the Game was the ‘70s music of Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. Many of the album’s songs ring true to that aspiration. Songs like the gently withering ‘Rashida’ (which details the story of a party invite revoked and boasts the lines “And I’d like to thank you Rashida / For giving me a reason / To call Miss Portman / And write this song”) and the dreamy, touching ode to his long-time publicist, ‘Barbara,’ are at once personal and slightly arch, slightly knowing. The latter is at once an homage and a declaration of love and friendship: “If you’re lost on a strange path / Needing a gate to turn into / Far from the sun / Or listening to someone happier than yourself / Barbara, Barbara / I’ll be there, I’ll be there.”
The undoubted standouts are perhaps the two most intensely personal tracks. ‘Montauk’ is addressed to Wainwright’s baby daughter and imagines her, aged 16, visiting her two fathers at their home in the titular Montauk, a seaside hamlet in the exclusive New York beachside enclave of The Hamptons. It manages to be at once tender and touching, while also boasting moments of levity and humour, such as when Wainwright intones: “One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad wearing a kimono / And see your other dad pruning roses” or “One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad trying to be funny / And see your other dad seeing through me / Hope that you will protect your dad.”
Such observations are punctuated with quiet, equally affecting moments of sentiment and gentle pleas such as “Hope you won’t turn around and go” or “Hope that you will want to stay for a while.” His daughter is barely one, yet this is Wainwright at his most fiercely loving and paternal, hoping desperately that their relationship will flourish in the coming years and endure even as she negotiates the notoriously tempestuous territory of her teenage years.
Out of the Game’s closing track, the almost eight minute long ‘Candles’ is an ode to his lost, much loved mother. It’s a subtle evocation of the intense grief Wainwright felt at her death and, rather touchingly, features backing vocals by multiple members of Wainwright’s extended, musically gifted family: his sister, Martha Wainwright, half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche, aunt Sloane Wainwright and father Loudon Wainwright III.
Its lyrics chronicle his repeated attempts to visit a small Catholic church in New York city, where mass is read in French, to light a candle in memory of his mother. Musically, it’s as intricate and ambitious as the very best of his material, delicately balancing mournfulness with understated grandeur. “I tried to do all that I can / But the churches have run out of candles / I tried to give you all that I own / But the bankers have run out of loaners,” Wainwright laments. “It’s always just that little bit more that doesn’t get you what you’re looking for.”
Is Out of the Game likely to push aside the largely disposable music that populates much of today’s Top 40 singles and albums charts? It’s highly unlikely. None of these songs is what mainstream radio is currently embracing, so Wainwright has failed, in that regard. But to use the word ‘failure’ to describe any aspect of Out of the Game is undeserved, ill considered and grossly misleading. In making it, Wainwright has crafted yet another set of songs that are ambitious, emotionally potent and unutterably his own. Although his desire to have a mainstream hit, whether intended seriously or slightly tongue-in-cheek, is likely to remain unrealised, his contribution to the musical canon is something far greater.
20 or 50 years from now, it’s far more likely that discerning music listeners will unearth more beauty, ambition, truth, and meaning in his unique music than in most anything currently occupying a space in the Top 10 singles chart. And, sure, we all love something fun and vacuous to dance or sing along to, but isn’t it the music that matter which truly endures? Rufus Wainwright’s legacy might not be Top 10 singles and a constant trail of paparazzi trailing his every move, but longevity and resonance are a far greater legacy to leave than the brief firecracker of flash in the pan, one hit wonder so-called ‘success.’
Out of the Game is out now through Universal Music Australia.