Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Rufus Wainwright *All Days Are Nights*

I used to think Rufus Wainwright could sing the phone book and still produce a masterpiece. Listening to All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, it sounds like Wainwright agrees. Unfortunately, we’re both wrong.

Wainwright, an artist whose self indulgence can be his greatest virtue, has finally been swallowed by it. Ironically, and fittingly, the self indulgence in question is the loose, stripped-down approach he’s taken on his latest record. Wainwright is notable, and equally loved and hated, for his oversized ambitions. This is the man who had the chutzpah to recreate Judy Garland’s classic Carnegie Hall performance song for song, and who has already composed an original opera. Beginning with his self-titled debut, and climaxing with his sprawling double-album magnum opus Want, Wainwright has been known for an excess of orchestration, sparkling and layered production, soaring melodies, operatic flourishes, classical and pop tendencies, and, ultimately, an over the top sensibility that few artists can execute with such panache. All Days Are Nights is a striking retreat: Wainwright, a piano, and, in one unfortunate section of the album, a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Fans of Wainwright, and I still count myself among the die hard, know that he is no stranger to solo performances. Days after Want One was released, Wainwright performed “Go Or Go Ahead,” one of his more excessively orchestrated numbers, solo with guitar. It was an electrifying and revelatory performance. For as baroque as his album cuts can be, most are just as moving and thrilling with Rufus alone at the piano or with an acoustic guitar, because most of Wainwright’s songs have, as their backbone, incredible melodies.

On ADAN, the opposite is true. The songs are nearly structureless and, given their short running time, they somehow manage to meander. True believers will no doubt credit the album for its stark emotion, and it is stark. But the emotional wallop of Wainwright’s music has usually been delivered by a devastating melody. While there are a few here, mostly the songs sound adrift, as if Wainwright hoped the directness of his approach would compensate for good construction.

Wainwright’s previous studio album, Release the Stars, suffered from a related flaw. Barring a couple of knockouts, most of the album buckled under orchestration that tried too hard to elevate material that was subpar. Still, it made for an engaging, if disappointing, listen. On ADAN the lack of orchestration only lays bare the weakness of the material.

The death of Wainwright’s mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, haunts the album, though she was still alive when he wrote the album. (She was battling cancer at the time.) The album’s best track, the achingly beautiful “Zebulon,” quietly burns with pain and loss. It's vintage Rufus, and a fitting bookend to another song for his mother, “Beauty Mark.” "Zebulon" concludes the album, and makes the ten tracks before it seem worse than they are.

All Days Are Nights is not awful. It's a middling album, best suited as background music, no more and no less.