Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game (2012)

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When listening to Rufus Wainwright, I can’t help now but attempt to imagine how jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas might approach his songs. So successful was his take on “Poses” that it’s hard not to consider that the definitive version of the tune – even above Wainwright’s own. That’s the power of Rufus Wainwright, however. He is gifted with a sense of melody that few others today even hint at understanding, and which can inspire others to even greater things.

I reach the same question each time through Out Of The Game though. Something is amiss. What is it? The elements are all in place – Rufus Wainwright’s voice is, as always, the centerpiece, and the music supporting him is just so, but maybe that’s the problem. There’s a lot of “just so” on Game (due May 1, 2012) and very little of the spectacular heights that propel Wainwright from an ordinary singer into something that stops you in your tracks.

The new album represents a return to form for the singer after a couple of decidedly darker affairs written in light of his mother (Kate McGarrigle)’s struggle with and ultimate death from cancer. It was understandable that music written and performed during that time would reflect the tumult he suffered. And here, with Game, he attempts to shake it all off, putting on a show of having a good time. I’m not convinced.

An insistence on replicating the aesthetic of decades past feels unnatural on too many of these songs, forcing them into unnecessary corners. Consider “Bitter Tears,” which bears the weight of an unfortunate keyboard sound that brings to mind the generic soundtrack played in an old skating rink. Or “Song Of You,” otherwise a very strong song, which employs a weird, distracting sweep filter on a low-rent organ sound. In fact, it’s the keyboard sounds used throughout this album that repeatedly cause issues – they sound cheap, chintzy, and dated in exactly the opposite way that Wainwright was probably going for. He may incorporate a bit of humor in his songs, but this isn’t a tongue-in-cheek nod to the music of the 1970s. This isn’t a lark. The songs are serious. The production should have been serious too. Having to listen through layers of goopy, distracting effects… what a disservice.

Where the album excels, however, the songs could be among his best. “Barbara” lets Rufus’ melodic capabilities roam, and here is where I begin to hear Dave Douglas’s phantom trumpet picking up his vocal line. Similarly, “Montauk” displays a playfully made-for-Broadway melody that could easily adapt into a beautiful instrumental passage, but it’s closing tune “Candles” that illustrates just what was amiss elsewhere.

A mournful dirge, “Candles” sets Wainwright free of any prior aesthetic constraints, singing soulfully against a backdrop of piano, accordion, and what I picture to be the very definition of that “funeral drum” Roger Waters mentioned in The Wall. That group playing behind Rufus, it might be intriguing to know, is most of his family – aunt Anna McGarrigle on accordion, aunt Sloan Wainwright, and backing vocals by father Loudon III and sister Martha Wainwright. It’s no stretch of the imagination to consider this a song a wake of sorts for his late mother. It is mournfully quiet and powerfully beautiful. If only the entire album attempted go where “Candles” did.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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