Music Picks

Less Lonely Hearts Club

New Wainwright: goodbye cynicism, hello romance.

By Elaine Corden 24 May 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden writes a pop culture column and music picks column on The Tyee. She regularly discusses music and media villainousness on her blog, Trifective.

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Gorgeous, grandiose crooning.

"Do I disappoint you?" croons Rufus Wainwright, at the outset of his new album, Release The Stars.

"Hardly," the listener is tempted to reply. The fifth album proper from Montrealer/New Yorker Wainwright (both cities can and do lay claim to him) is everything we've come to expect from him: grandiose, romantic, wildly innovative and sounding like no other artist making music today. But one thing is missing: the cynicism. Wainwright has fallen in love, and Release the Stars reflects it: gorgeous, and sincere and laden with choruses and strings that are the sonic equivalent of gushing sweetly about a new lover.

Of late, Wainwright has made his affection for such old-school cabaret singers as Judy Garland apparent (he even re-created Garland's legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall last year), and on Release The Stars, he seems intent on casting himself in the same tragic light as Garland -- a wistful broad too sensitive for this world. That Wainwright seems a little melancholy even when in love is a huge part of his appeal -- the tragicomic who, even at his happiest, senses the sword of Damocles hanging over his head.

Produced by the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and recorded in Berlin, Release The Stars is lush and littered with ridiculously pretty ballads (especially the tender love song to love, "Tiergarden"), almost to the point where one misses the old Rufus -- the one who put one or two catchy pop songs on every album, to offset his overt opera-queeniness.

The album sometime ventures into adult-contemporary territory with its refusal to change its morning-after tone ("Sansouci" attempts to duplicate one of Wainwright's traditional swingy pop numbers, but never really takes off), but even the dull moments are at least unconventional, and the great moments ("Leaving for Paris No. 2") are beautiful enough to break your heart 10 times over while casually evoking classical touchstones. (Wainwright's piano part on "Paris" tosses off a breezy reference to Erik Satie like its no big thing, echoing the "Gymnopedies No.1"'s rainy-day maudlin before haphazardly discarding it.)

Release the Stars isn't the greatest record Wainwright has ever made, but compared to 90 per cent of other albums right now, it's a winner, and viewed in the context of Wainwright's whole career, it's rather extraordinary.

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