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CD Reviews:  Review of Want One by Rufus Wainwright

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Every generation has that one guy, the troubadour who takes influences from seemingly disparate genres of music and weaves them all together to give the world something it hasn’t heard before. Frank Zappa did it. Tom Waits did it. And now, Rufus Wainwright is doing it (as is Robert Pollard). Our gift to these brave men for their pioneering work, up to this point, has been general indifference. Hopefully, we’ll remember to thank them later, once the rest of the world has caught up. 

In the meantime, let’s thank DreamWorks for having the vision to sign Wainwright because, now that the studio has decided to sell their music division to Interscope, you can forget about DreamWorks signing anyone interesting from now on. Knowing Interscope, they’ll gut DreamWorks’ roster and turn it into a vanity label for some middle class black kid from New Trier high School who poses as an angry gangsta rapper. But I’m rambling, again. 

Wainwright’s blue blood folkie heritage (daddy Loudon III is a folk legend, as is mum Kate McGarrigle) may make some think he’s the next Joan Baez, but he’s more like the next Cole Porter. He has as much an eye for the theater as he does for the concert hall. He dabbles in pop, cabaret, Tin Pan Alley, and only occasionally will surrender to his folk roots. The one thing he hasn’t done so far is make a truly great record. He comes close this time, though. 

Want One is the first half of a very productive studio session with Maruis deVries (Madonna, U2, Neil Finn, Bjork) that netted more than 30 songs. Want One is allegedly the more mainstream songs of the bunch, and while Want Two is not slated for release until next year (by which time Interscope will have included guest appearances from Ghostface Killah and Whack Daddy C, who I may or may not have just made up), if there are five good songs on it, then Wainwright will have fallen for the same siren song that led both Guns ‘n Roses and Radiohead to have similar delusions of grandeur. All three had the chance to make single album masterpieces -- Use Your Illusion for the Gunners, Kid A and/or Amnesiac for Radiohead -- only to squander it in double album excess. 

Wainwright wastes little time warming up the orchestra. “Oh What a World” is three verses on repeat, starting with an oompah-pah tuba and finishing with the whole enchilada. Wainwright also wastes little time establishing the state of his love life, with the line, “Oh what a world my parents gave me/Always traveling, but not in love.” There will be more barbs for parents and lovers alike later. 

DreamWorks isn’t releasing any singles from Want One, which is a pity because there are a couple songs that could break him open. “I Don’t Know What It Is” is this album’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” catchy but safe. “Movies of Myself” is better, with a driving drum beat propelling Wainwright’s demand that his man show him the real thing: “I’m handing it over, I’m saying that you’re the only one/Don’t run for the border, turn that corner.” “14th Street” is a show-stopping stage number that says everything Billy Joel’s ill-advised musical tried to say. 

But the album’s peak, which also stands as the finest thing Wainwright’s ever done, is “Go or Go Ahead,” a stunning six-minute ballad that sounds like Queen taking a whack at the Divine Comedy’s “Certainty of Chance,” It takes two minutes to build up steam, but the climax is staggering, with a veritable Greek chorus backing him up. “Beautiful Child” is a delightful pseudo-Cuban romp about the circle of life and redemption. Fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland-era material or Kirsty MacColl’s last album should find this pronto. The closing ballad, “Dinner at Eight,” is a deeply moving piano piece about Wainwright’s father and the emptiness he felt as a child, only to understand it perfectly as an adult. Gorgeous. 

Where Want One slips is on silly asides like “Vibrate,” about a cell phone call Wainwright knows will never come. The lyrics, which mention electroclash, karaoke and Britney Spears, already sound dated. “Vicious World” pits an angry lyric against a feather-light melody, which may sound clever but the Rhodes piano that anchors it, not to mention Wainwright’s feather-light vocal, derail it. His 9/11 song, “11:11,” is negligible as well, and starts with one of the laziest lyrics Wainwright’s ever written: “Woke up this morning at 11:11/Wasn’t in Portland, and I wasn’t in heaven.” Ugh. Look up the Stills’ new album, soon to be reviewed here, if you want some good songs about 9/11. 

Want One, for all it accomplishes in broadening the boundaries of pop music, is also remarkably frustrating. There simply has to be enough good material on Want Two that, if inserted here, would have made Want One an undisputed classic. Instead, we get two albums that may be very good, but will not have the impact that one stellar album would have had. Imagine John Lennon taking “A Day in the Life” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” off of Sgt. Pepper because he thought they were too experimental. Granted, it would have made Magical Mystery Tour much, much better, but at what cost? For as much as Wainwright has done to carry the torch of music from days gone by, it also appears that music’s history has taught him nothing, for he is repeating some well documented mistakes. Rock and roll is about going for it, not playing it safe. Wainwright clearly had a shot at a double eagle, and chose to lay up. Next time, Rufus, please, go for the stick.

David Medsker

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