People who know nothing about music often accuse Rufus Wainwright of being a Jeff Buckley rip-off, simply because they saw Shrek and noticed that Wainwright sang “Hallelujah,” the song Buckley had made so popular (admittedly not as well). But no one calls Buckley a Leonard Cohen rip-off for covering the song in the first place. Nor, really, does Wainwright have anything to do with Jeff Buckley musically.
In his new album, “Want One,” Wainwright patches together so many different styles and musical clichZ
The album begins with strange hymns that put us in a type of dream world before an oompa brass bass sets in and Wainwright marches along; instruments are layered in until a full orchestra backs him. Finally, the orchestra quotes a very familiar melody — Ravel’s Bolero. The oompa bass playing all along is actually the bass to that piece as well. Immediately, Wainwright sets a musical tone for the whole album, which he returns to.
Throughout “Want One,” Wainwright deals with a search for fulfillment, be it through travel or through esthetic beauty. But one gets the impression that despite the generally happy tone of all his songs he never really finds this fulfillment. This contrast makes for a perfect irony, and fits beautifully with his semi-sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. In “Vibrate,” he sings, “My phone is on vibrate for you/– I tried dancing Britney Spears/ I guess I’m getting on in years.” In another song, he begs for someone to “Stop me making movies of myself.” He asks to be given things that would ultimately provide happiness, like a “Love that is longer than a day,” but he ends the song by begging that person not to run away, for he has “Seen it all/ In movies of myself.”
“Movies of Myself” is another example of Wainwright’s use of various musical idioms, this time from American folk songs. He sings “Wrap your loving arms around me/ While the cold wind blows.” In “Vibrate” he also breaks into singing “Call me, Call me in the morning/– call me anytime you like.” Blondie, anyone?
However, two songs are a bit suspect: in “Natasha,” Wainwright offers nothing of much interest, the music being very simple, and the lyrics nothing we haven’t heard before. Also, the refrain “Oh Natasha, All I can do is write a song for you, Natasha,” simply reeks of Beatles “Michelle”-type compositions. “Want” is a bit more interesting musically, offering some interesting keyboard sounds, but the format “I don’t want X/ I just want Y” isn’t exactly the newest thing in music. This being said, these are two songs out of fourteen, and they are both still very pleasant to listen to.
The album’s true jewel, though, is its sixth track, “Go or Go Ahead.” It starts out with a solo acoustic guitar strumming slowly, and Wainwright singing softly about abandonment. Structurally, there are some very surprising chords that seem to pop out of nowhere, and really add a mysterious feel to the song. A very distant electric guitar or synthesizer begins, and back-up singers insert a small interlude before another electric guitar enters strumming harder on downbeats. Suddenly, the song explodes, with a chorus, keyboards, electric guitars, drums and Wainwright belting out his lyrics. Then the storm subsides for barely a verse, where he sings “But oh Medusa, kiss me and crucify/ this unholy notion of the mythic power of love.” The song then flares up again, much harder than the first explosion, and Wainwright sings “look in her eyes, look in her eyes/ and forget about the ones who are crying,” essentially advocating that we turn to stone.
Wainwright, whose first two albums shined only occasionally, has pushed himself to a new level with “Want One,” and perhaps with time it will earn a fifth star.