Rufus Wainwright isn’t the first singer-songwriter to reinterpret earlier work through an orchestral lens; but usually the work being revisited has entered the culture in a leaner, smaller-ensemble incarnation. Whereas much of Wainwright’s third and fourth albums, “Want One” and “Want Two”—whose twentieth anniversaries are the prompt for this new tour—is already fully scored. When Wainwright hits the Pavilion stage at Ravinia tonight with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra behind him, it’s not clear what the CSO will actually be doing. We’re told that the event boasts “new lush symphonic arrangements by Sally Herbert (Woodkid, Florence + the Machine) and Max Moston (Antony and the Johnsons).” So, does that mean the new, lush arrangements will be replacing the old lush arrangements?
I’m not being entirely fair here, because both “Want One” and “Want Two”—which were released individually, then later collected into a double-album entitled (what else?) “Want”—also offer a few stripped-down tunes, most notably “The Art Teacher,” in which Wainwright is accompanied only by his fluttering left hand on the piano and a brief, exclamatory horn solo—and the minimally produced, solo-string-plucking “Vibrate.” But the spareness of these tunes is ultimately the source of their ravishment; will layering them with additional instrumental voices result in subtraction by addition? I suppose there’s only one way to find out. We can hope for the best—and for nice weather at the park.
In the meantime, we’ve been given a reason to revisit the “Want” albums, both as individual, stand-alone works and as a single project. For some time now, the critical consensus on Wainwright has been that he’s an enormously gifted composer and performer who has yet to release an album we can unequivocally call a masterpiece. (He dropped his debut at twenty-five, and last month turned fifty.)
Having revisited “Want,” I can pretty confidently say that there is in fact a masterwork in there, partially obscured by a bit of clutter. One of the ongoing criticisms of Wainwright’s work is that—spoiled first-born son and irrepressible prodigy that he is—he’s stylistically all over the place, and on “Want” alone, we ping giddily between cabaret and folk, chanson and anthem, chamber pop and just plain chamber. This makes it difficult—certainly on the first few listens—to get a hook on who he is, as an artist and as a man; though continued acquaintance with the albums reveal that in fact he’s charted a deliberate course—in fact, two or three. “Want Two,” for instance, is a descent from the sacred to the profane, opening with Wainwright’s ecstatic, Eastern-inflected setting of the “Agnus Dei,” and concluding with the earthy growl of “Old Whore’s Diet”—with a stop at the near midpoint, where sanctity and sensuality briefly and provocatively combine in “The Gay Messiah.” The latter tune’s lyrics function not so much as double entendres as single-and-a-quarter entendres (as witness Wainwright repeatedly singing “The Gay Messiah’s coming”). The boy’s not coy.
But additionally, throughout “Want,” we find Wainwright reappraising himself as a man, as an artist, and most intriguingly as a son and brother. The scion of singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, he grew up in the hothouse environment of one of the late-twentieth century’s most brilliant musical dynasties, and he seems torn by conflicting urges to define himself by that, and to define himself against it. In the project’s title song, he wistfully croons about not wanting global fame: “I just wanna be my Dad / With a slight sprinkling of my mother / And work at the family store / And take orders from the counter.” The irony, of course, is that that’s exactly what he’s been doing. In the learn-your-piano-fingering ditty, “Little Sister,” he peeks at the origins of his playful (or maybe “playful”) rivalry with his equally gifted sister, Martha. But it’s in “Dinner at Eight,” his exquisitely parsed ballad about his turbulent relationship with his father, that he achieves real incandescence—singing with mournful bravado, “No matter how strong / I’m gonna take you down / With one little stone.”
“Want” sets these familial reflections against Wainwright’s on the peripatetic nature of his calling (“Why am I always on a plane or a fast train? / Oh, what a world my parents gave me / Always traveling / But not in love”) and on his frequent run-ins with heartache (“I’m only the one I love / Am I only the one you love?”). Given that he’s now been coupled for many years, and has appeared to settle into the life of a touring musician, these tunes have a kind of diarist appeal, which possibly accounts for Wainwright’s idea to view them from another angle, both more formal and more adventurous.
Some of “Want” now feels a bit dated—references to electroclash and to Jane Curtin and John Lithgow—but this is balanced by Wainwright’s opposing tendency to bring in literary or classical allusions; his very moving ode to the late Jeff Buckley, “Memphis Skyline,” is filled with them, as well as to the Leonard Cohen tune that became a signature for both Buckley and him. “Always hated him for the way he looked in the gaslight of the morning / Then came Hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia for me in my room living.”
Wainwright remains a somewhat maddening lyricist, occasionally dropping a lazy rhyme (“Woke up this morning at 11:11 / Wasn’t in Portland and wasn’t in heaven”), then redeeming himself with a couplet or phrase that staggers (I personally was flattened by “There’s a fire in the priory”). And his singing either grates or gratifies, depending on your tastes; his baritone is supple but nasal, and his vowel sounds can be irritatingly singer-y—as when he croons, “Kiss me,” and it comes out, “Kass may.” But for my money, he invests much of what he sings with naked emotionalism and genuine beauty. In sum, there’s really no one else like him on the scene, which makes it seem callow, given its manifest riches, to get too picky with this project—to, in effect, want more than “Want.”
“Want Symphonic: Rufus Wainwright with the CSO” at Ravinia Festival, 201 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, Friday, August 11, 8pm. Tickets here.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.