Review Summary: Release The Stars, if not a step forward, is at worst a side-step en route on to a knockout album.
Charismatic, endlessly talented and disarmingly self-aware, Rufus Wainwright is a star in any other era.
As tempting as it would be to term his relative obscurity a “tragedy”- certainly, it would compliment his theatrical flair- one of Wainwright’s most remarkable features is the almost total freedom with which he’s been able to conduct a career on the fringes of the pop world. With a modest-but-steadily increasing fan base, Wainwright occupies the “oh yes, we’re very keen on the arts” section of Universal Music’s commercial catalogue, a finer sort of artist that label execs love to point to when questioned about the declining state of music- in a way that, say, the Kaiser Chiefs or Mötley Crüe could never be lauded- but is never likely to sell twelve million albums and figurehead a mini-revolution.
It’s on such a creative footing- on the back of an ambitious concert tour recreating Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance in 1961- that Wainwright endeavoured for the first time to self-produce his fifth studio album, the appropriately titled Release The Stars
. Noticeably more self-confident than ever, Wainwright has expanded his baroque pop blueprint still further; his arrangements owe more to French and German romantic and opera music than the baroque era, but the label is more appropriate here than in its normal usage, interchangeable with “slightly pretentious.” At the same time, there’s a little more diversity on offer too: ‘Between My Legs’ and ‘Slideshow’ each weave angular post-punk guitar lines between glam rock- and folk-blues-inspired frameworks, and the opening bars of ‘Rules and Regulations’ feature the unusual sound of a synthesised double bass line.
Lyrically, Wainwright is as frank and decisive as ever, if a little more political than before. Opening track ‘Do I Disappoint You’ (no question mark- it’s rhetorical!) takes facetious aim at people who have trouble accepting him as is, remarking “do I disappoint you in just being human"”
The track is littered with religious images- fire, brimstone, holy wine- giving a tiny hint as to the intended recipient of the message, while regal horns and flute bursts create a corresponding air of the grandiose. Lead single ‘Going to a Town’ is the musical opposite, a sombre piano-driven reflection on Rufus’ deteriorating relationship with his country of birth that’s lent only a momentary air of nonchalance by clever pizzicato violin counter-melodies. Despondent, he laments the decline of America with little scope for reconciliation, crying, “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down.”
Blame David Byrne.
‘Slideshow’ is the album’s centrepiece, an almost begrudging love song that echoes Want One
’s ‘Go Or Go Ahead.’ Opening with the pointed line “do I love you because you treat me so indifferently"”
and taking in one of the all-time greatest threats, “if I am not prominently featured in your next slideshow, I don’t know what I’m gonna do,”
‘Slideshow’ marries melody, strong harmonies and a snaky funk-inspired horn section in the gargantuan chorus. ‘Tiergarten’ borrows well from fellow folk-opera perpetrator Don McLean’s ‘And I Love You So,’ tastefully arranged to allow the subtlety and character of his voice centre-stage. By contrast, ‘Between My Legs’ demonstrates Wainwright’s tendency to go overboard- a relatively straight-forward power-pop number confused by three and four guitar parts which aren’t overly complimentary- and when they’re stripped back, the core melody isn’t as interesting or well-developed as we’ve come to expect. Even ‘Slideshow’ has a make-or-break moment: an awkward guitar motif that almost throws off the immediately following chorus.
Taking the production and arrangement as a whole, however, the occasional missteps are far outweighed by the successes: the complexity and character of the arrangements and the natural ease with which words and music synch together and interact. However, where the Want
albums succeed, Release The Stars
is found only slightly lacking: in the melody department. Melodically, Release The Stars
is not as consistent as the previous couplet, and while the strength of Rufus’ voice is enough to elevate ‘Nobody’s Off The Hook’ and ‘Not Ready To Love’ above their stations, the Brandon Flowers-ode ‘Tulsa’ would probably be more listenable as an instrumental. These are petty complaints, however, and Release The Stars
, if not a step forward, is at worst a side-step en route on to a knockout album.