It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that at the age of 38, and on his seventh studio album, Rufus Wainwright
has delivered his most concise and commanding work yet, despite the fact that he has consistently billed it as his first real full-on pop foray and the most accessible of all of his records. It’s as if he’s uncomfortable to wholly embrace Out Of The Game
as the album it is, and instead relegate it to a seeming side project, compelled mainly from his incredible chemistry with retro-soul aficionado and producer Mark Ronson. Perhaps Wainwright’s unease speaks to a number of factors in which a blatant pop record would belie his career equity, in that his recent projects have included setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, writing a complete opera (Prima Donna
) and dealing with his mother's passing away. Perhaps a 12 song collection of tracks with horns and choruses galore would negate those “high” aesthetic choices, and instead reveal an empty shallowness that many of Wainwright’s critics have spoken to throughout his career.
But regardless of Rufus’ own public sentiment towards this album, what’s left are twelve incredibly potent and fantastic songs whose foundation is his magnificent songwriting hand and ear for harmony. Opening with the sultry shuffle of the title track, Wainwright immediately asserts “I’m out of the game / I’ve been out for a long time now / I’m looking for something that can’t be found on the main drag, no,” which can be read both as a lament for his own aging vis-a-vis sexuality, but on the other had can be a tongue-in-cheek critique of pop’s obsession with youth culture. Even still, it’s hard not to sing along, especially during the pre-chorus build and release, while he belts out, with the aid of some swoon-worthy back up singers, “Look at you / look at you / look at you / look at you / Suckers!”
Second offering “Jericho” is another radio-ready piece that keeps with the style set out by the title track, and again features a gloriously large chorus and Rufus reaching into the higher part of his full voice register. “Jericho” may be the most blatant homage to Elton John in all of Rufus’ career, despite comparisons harking back to his own 1998 eponymous debut. After the second chorus, he launches into a minor-chord driven bridge that is straight out of Elton’s 1970s work, and it’s beautifully accented with sensual harmonies, thick strings, a seductive bass line and staccato horns. “Jericho” leads right into “Rashida,” which completes the opening trilogy of retro funk-laced pop swing, with a leading piano line in brisk eighth notes against a robust baritone saxophone. Halfway through the track, Victor Axelrod’s synthesizer work sizzles against Thomas Brenneck’s muscular electric guitar and the back-up singers’ acrobatics. Interestingly enough, too, these first three songs all feature Wainwright on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, rather than his signature piano, which while it may be a random anecdote actually feels integral to freeing his style and sound and allowing him to essentially be the leader of his own soul band.
“Welcome To The Ball” and “Montauk” are more akin to conventional Rufus, in that the former is a grand, wide-open and opulently orchestrated piece with classic Wainwright decadence. Even so, it’s not annoyingly extravagant; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s danceable, makes you want to sing along and feels cinematic and is utterly entertaining. “Montauk” is most recognizably Rufus, in that it features a fast-paced piano line that sounds straight out of his last record All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu
. It’s a song for his daughter Viva and touches on the subject of parenting and his own immediate family (meaning daughter and husband), which is fairly new territory for Rufus. Even still, there’s a good amount of his classically wry humor, especially when he sings “One day you will come to Montauk / and see your Dad wearing a kimono / And see your other Dad pruning roses / Hope you won’t turn around and go.”
The second half of the record is less dramatically in-your-face retro/pop, but it still has some great moments. “Perfect Man” is a deliciously mischievous piece that has a foot-tapping swing and features sister Martha Wainwright on a haunting and lovely stereo-spanning backup vocal. “Bitter Tears” is the closest to an all-out pop single, yet it avoids being trite. “Respectable Dive” may be the only real misstep of the album, and is just too drawn out among its company on the album.
But it is the album closer, “Candles,” that is the real gem of the record’s side B. It’s an elegy for his late mother Kate McGarrigle, and while its length at almost eight minutes may seem tedious, it’s actually a wholly engrossing piece. Wainwright delves into the helplessness of watching a loved one succumb to illness, and the subsequent guilt for not having been able to do more to avoid such an outcome. He goes from church to church to light a candle to honor her memory, but cannot find a place that has any wicks left. Kate’s sister Anna provides a beautiful and elegant accordion line, David Budge delivers a rite-inspired snare drum line and John-Angus Smith plays an incredibly moving bagpipe outro. But it’s Rufus, backed by his entire family of singers (father Loudon, sister Martha, half-sister Lucy, aunt Sloan and friends Jenni Muldaur and Chaim Tannenbaum), that gives the most emotional performance of the record, and it’s really quite extraordinary in that the songs he’s used to address his mother’s death (“Zebulon,” “Martha” and now “Candles”) he’s avoided cliché, self-pity and platitudes. “Candles” is an intensely mature work, and a fitting end to the record.
Call him over the top, call him excessive or even arrogant, but one cannot fault Rufus Wainwright for not trying hard enough and delivering with musical aplomb. The difference with Out Of The Game
, however, is that he’s provided a cohesive work that exemplifies his talents, for the most part excises his overindulgence, highlights his sharp wit and exceptional musical skill. And then add Mark Ronson into the mix, who has also risen to the challenge, and while he relies a bit on his own studio tricks, by bringing in his keen pop/soul sensibility with the skill of band players The Dap-Kings, Ronson demonstrates how perfectly suited he is for the project. It’s an alchemical, enchanting collaboration, and even if this is a one-off performance for either of them, Out Of The Game
will remain a worthy contender for their respective bests.