Rufus Wainwright is the son of the caustic, comical folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, who though he once wrote a song called "Rufus Is a Tit Man" (Rufus was a baby, see) at least did his child the favor of not naming him Loudon. He did, however, pass on certain physical attributes -- you might compare the cover of Rufus' new, first album with his dad's old, first album and find there the same cock of the head and look of impatient forbearance -- and the son resembles the father in the range and color of his voice, homely yet nimble, a voice whose constant advantage is the element of surprise, of doing always more than you expect it can, and which seems formed expressly to express a bemused, languid yearning that breaks at times into astonished celebration. He is the son also of Kate McGarrigle, who with her sister Anna has produced since the '70s a deeply moving sort of parlor folk music, and though Wainwright himself is classically grounded, with a stated penchant for opera, he shares with his mother a fondness for antique vernacular American pop, collating blue notes, raggy syncopations, doo-wop triplets, hymnal harmonies and springy uptown rhythms in constructions some have called "sophisticated," which relative to the competition they are, though not ostentatiously so.
Like his mom's Wainwright's music gathers around the piano; his playing of that instrument at once recalls the call house, the concert hall, the Cafe Carlyle and the sandbox where Brian Wilson used to plant his feet, and in his conflation of art song and pop song he brings to mind as well such ambitious tunesmiths of ages past as Kurt Weill (whom he quotes), Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman -- whose own first album Rufus Wainwright sometimes resembles -- and Van Dyke Parks, whose Main Street string arrangements grace several of these tracks. (Hot local utility man Jon Brion is also on board, playing and producing to good effect.) Yet, unlike some of his peers, he's not trying to rewrite Smile; this is, for all the referents, impeccably personal, thrillingly ambitious, 100-percent modern music, and quite absolutely gorgeous. As an aesthetic end, gorgeousness may seem prima facie to lack heft, but this is brave stuff, willing to overreach to break your heart, recreating in sound and in singing (of lyrics impressionistic but not vague, private but parsable) the twisted architecture of love.
"And you will believe in love," Wainwright declares in his delirious, slurry portamento, "and all it's supposed to mean," though, being his father's son, he adds a caveat. "But just until the fish starts to smell/And you're struck down by the hammer." This is his theme, more or less -- the hopeless hope of the hopeless romantic -- and he's made of it a beautiful record, intoxicated and intoxicating.
© Robert Lloyd 1998 and 2011