Album of the Week, August 24: Poses by Rufus Wainwright

RufusPosesRufus Wainwright was born into a truly musical family. The son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, he grew up surrounded by people who knew, loved, played, and wrote a diverse array of musical forms. He demonstrated a musical knack from a young age. Starting with casual family gatherings and eventually recording and touring with his mother and aunt, he developed his own musical flair, occasionally writing songs as he honed his craft. A talented pianist with a charming, distinctive voice, it was a foregone conclusion that he would carve out his own career. With his talent, pedigree, and status as a rare (for the time) openly gay singer-songwriter, his eponymous debut was released in 1998 to great fanfare and acclaim. It showed of his talents nicely and explored his folk-tinged baroque pop style. Wainwright toured extensively and engaged actively in publicizing the album. At the same time, he began assembling songs for his follow-up.

Title Poses
Act Rufus Wainwright
Label DreamWorks Release Date June 5, 2001
Producer Pierre Marchand, Greg Wells, Alex Gifford, Ethan Johns, Damian LeGassick
U.S. Chart  117 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
  2. Greek Song
  3. Poses
  4. Shadows
  5. California
  6. The Tower of Learning
  7. Grey Gardens
  8. Rebel Prince
  9. The Consort
  10. One Man Guy
  11. Evil Angel
  12. In A Graveyard

Poses came out nearly three years later, and the difference in confidence and musical diversity is striking. While Rufus Wainwright would continue to grow and offer solid, sometimes challenging music, his sophomore release captures him at just the right moment. Cheeky, witty, charming, and just serious enough to pull it all together, he shows off everything in his musical bag of tricks but manages to make it into a stunning cohesive work. This cohesion is furthered by a kind of sharp-kid-in-the-big-city vibe generated by Wainwright’s immersion in New York life and stay at the (in)famous Chelsea Hotel while working on the disc.

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk is the perfect opener as well as one of his finest songs. A delightful tribute to enjoyment and addictions — the titular pair, he assures us, being “just a couple of my cravings” — it sets the tone of the album. Fun but serious, musically solid with just enough flair to surprise, it’s a wonderful song with a perfect vocal. The title track — one of the first written for the album — is the other touchstone. Inspired by the Chelsea Hotel, it’s beautiful, circular musical theme echoes the revolving door of fame and power Wainwright witnessed while staying there. It’s a complex song that simply flows from start to end, an amazing demonstration of the composer’s growing talent.

The album is a deft sampler of styles. Greek Song — a self-proclaimed ode to queer love — is a sunny series of vignettes held together by unusual Asian instrumentation. Shadows is a dry dub of cinematic energy, building in slow dark, layers. California is a fun romp filled with nice musical moments and celebrity name-dropping. The Tower of Learning is a nod to Wainwright’s love of opera, with a trip-hop underpinning. Grey Gardens manages to blend Thomas Mann and the titular documentary into a haunting, sympathetic pop symphony.

Three of the tracks use grandiose images to anchor Wainwright’s themes. Rebel Prince parlays the tantalizing frustration of an anticipated assignation in royal garb and a shuffling cabaret rhythm. The Consort offers a harpsichord-inspired tribute to those who inspire us. Evil Angel was based on a real encounter Wainwright had in France and surges with dark energy.

One of the finest moments on the album was actually written fifteen years earlier by Rufus’ father. One Man Guy is a simple, folky tribute to personal independence. Rufus delivers a spot-on vocal and manages an homage to his dad’s music that becomes his own. Ironically for the subject matter, it’s the most collaborative track on the album, featuring guitar and vocals by Rufus’ close friend Teddy Thompson (himself a second-generation folk musician) and vocals by his sister Martha. It’s a stirring moment that shines because of its simple energy.

Things wrap up with In A Graveyard, another less ornate but no less powerful song. Rufus plays piano and sings, delivering a quietly moving reflection on life and love. A quiet refutation of the excesses that wind throughout most of the rest of the disc, it’s a nice meditation and a perfect closer, creating a powerful, evocative set of songs.

FURTHER LISTENING: In fifteen years, Rufus Wainwright has released eight albums (not including two live sets). All of them have something to offer and feature strong songs and creative musical approaches, centered on his strong, distinctive vocals. His debut is solid, but a bit over-long. His third album was intended to be a double-disc entitled Want. It was wisely split into two albums; Want One is a worthy successor to Poses without quite as many highs. Want Two hinted more strongly at Wainwright’s occasional tendency to over-embroider, something that bogs down the otherwise strong Release the Stars. All Days Are Nights is a stark, touching tribute to his recently departed mother. Out of the Game is a mature but fun set of songs that demonstrates just how much more less can be. Rufus Does Judy is a delightful conceit, with Wainwright covering Judy Garland’s famous Carnegie Hall live album; it works surprisingly well. Rufus also participates in many family and friend gatherings and tribute concerts. Two powerful highlights are 1998’s The McGarrigle Hour and the touching, star-studded Sing Me the Songs, a tribute to the music of his late mother.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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