Rufus Wainwright- Release the Stars
Producer: Neil Tennant
There just isn't enough retro-pop these days. While numerous bands, solo artists, and just in general musicians reference and pay homage to artists from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, not many people actually try to sound like they're from that age. Cue Rufus Wainwright raising his hand and being the one conscious objector. Ever since his self-titled debut Wainwright has been a voice for the baroque-retro-pop sense that nobody seems brave enough to take on. The son of Loudon and the sister of Martha, Rufus' family tree already paints him into a corner of musical talent, a corner which he makes the most of with his fifth proper release, Release the Stars. Where his last two albums, Want One and Want Two led him astray from the brilliance of his sophomore effort Poses, Rufus' latest effort finds him taking the sprawling instrumentation of his last two albums and and adding the pop sense of his best work to create what is arguably his most complete work yet.
The album opens with a wonderfully apocalyptic tune that illustrates the strongest of Wainwright's talents on this album: he manages to express loss and sadness with acute, almost happy, pop songs. "Do I Disappoint You" is a mystical tune that echoes "Within Without You" and George Harrison's solo work, adding in a children's choir to Wainwright's already beautifully soulful croon. The downside to the opener is that its one of the strongest tracks on the album: rarely does the rest of the cd rise above the brilliant beginning.
"Going to a Town" finds Wainwright doing his best Morrissey impression, complete with his own personal views on the right wing religious movement that he seems to believe is controlling America. The admittedly homosexual Wainwright seems genuinely worn down of America, and the song is a sufficient social commentary with minimal instrumentation (piano + string section + drums). "Tiergarten" is an example of a weaker track on the cd, as it falls victim to producer Neil Tennant's and Wainwright's own expansive pop intelligence; "Tiergarten," "Rules and Regulations," and "Sanssouci" are so musically overpowering with strings, horns, and backup vocals that these elements take away from the strongest aspect of the songs: Wainwright's voice.
"Between My Legs" is Wainwright's happy-sad-pop coming to bear strongly. The song is so brutally sexual (both metaphorically and literally) that it makes the listener smile and tap their toes to the pretty guitars, already rare in Wainwright's work, chugging along. And the end of the song is the best outro Wainwright musters: a voice-over by Welsh actress Sian Phillips leading to a transposition of The Phantom of the Opera's main theme carrying over the end of the song in sprawling horns.
"Not Ready to Love," "Nobody's Off the Hook," and "Leaving for Paris No. 2" are muted songs, accentuated by small amounts of instrumentation that perfectly highlight Wainwright's voice. "Not Ready" is a Leonard Cohen-like tune bringing out the weakness and sadness in the artists voice and lyrics. They are two of the stronger songs because, again, they highlight Wainwright's emotive delivery instead of the sometimes stoicly overpowering backup instruments. "Slideshow" is a take back to the 70s with unaffected guitars, a big choral chorus, and dancing horns that showcase the best side of Elton John tunes.
The album closes with its strongest track, "Release the Stars." Crying back to an era of Sinatra-esque instrumentation and piano work, Wainwright is a jazz singer in a smoky bar on "Release." He sings of the death of Hollywood, something that, although they have not experienced, the listener can relate to with Rufus' delivery. The song finally builds to a huge chorus with Wainwright crying, in his strongest voice on the entire album, over a choir, strong keys, and blaring horns "why not just release." The song closes the album in smoky jazz fashion that leaves nothing extra to be wanted.
Release the Stars is largely a return to form for the venerable Rufus Wainwright. It is a poppy record, filled with single-worthy songs ("Going to a Town," "Do I Disappoint You"), and an artistically sound record, sufficient with arty tracks to holdover fans of the Want series. While it does fall in places to a overuse of instrumentation that takes away from Wainwright's voice, and some of the songs do not seem overly sincere, others are the biggest and most emotionally charged songs Rufus has ever written. And the strength of this album that shines above Poses is that the emotion is not just an outpouring; it is a controlled sincerity that Waiwright has learned from years in the business of pop, and the songs excel because of this learned lesson. Whether you're of fan of Wainwright or not, pick up this album and let his soulful, throaty tenor take you somewhere else.
Strings and Horns Strings and Horns!: Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Musicals.