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By Luke Lewis

Posted on 04/03/10 at 01:27:08 pm

 

In 1992, when a then-unsigned Jeff Buckley was playing a residency at the tiny East Village cafe Sin-E, one of the regulars in the audience was a 19-year-old Rufus Wainwright. I've always thought the two artists had a great deal in common, not just because of their dazzling vocal prowess, but in terms of their flaws, too.

Wainwright echoes Buckley in the sense that he's almost too talented, so generously gifted that he doesn't always know when, or how, to rein himself in. Which is understandable: when you can sing anything, it's tempting to try it all.

But such extravagance can be exhausting to listen to. Like a precocious child, Wainwright will never pen a straightforward chorus when an opulent aria or high-kicking show tune will do.

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And much as I've loved his more ambitious projects - last year's French language opera, Prima Donna, for example - for years I've longed for him to produce something as nakedly pretty and affecting as 'One Man Guy' (an acoustic cover of his father Loudon's song), from 2001's 'Poses' album.

Happily, his sixth album is about as stripped-down and unadorned as it's possible to get, just piano and voice. Out go fussy orchestral arrangements, in comes a mood of austere reflection, inspired by the death of Wainwright's mother, Kate McGarrigle, earlier this year.

"It's an eerie album," he told The Observer recently, "essentially my mourning while my mother was still alive." Here's a track-by-track, first listen response to the record.

Who Are You New York
Over rolling arpeggios reminiscent of Muse's 'Sunburn' (lame reference, I know, but I'm a classical music philistine), Rufus unfurls a stately melody, recounting an obsessive search for an unnamed object of desire, repeating the nagging hook, "Who are you?"

So Sad With What I Have
In which Rufus sinks into an abyss of self-pity, singing, "How could someone so bright love someone so blue?" References to 17th Century folk devil Bluebeard further compound the sense of a mind unravelling with despair.

Martha
Another turbulent mood-piece, obviously inspired by Rufus' sister, featuring conversational lyrics that feel all the more anguished for their apparent off-handedness: "It's your brother calling, Martha please call me back..."

Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now
The album's first upbeat number, but it's less Rufus-does-Judy Garland, more Cabaret - a seemingly ritzy show-tune, undercut by a vague hint of something sinister looming up ahead.

True Loves
Continuing the theme of dislocation - once again, Rufus describes himself as a detached observer - here he ruminates aphoristically on love before offering the bleak conclusion: "A heart of stone never goes anywhere".

When Most I Wink
Featuring lyrics adapted by Shakespeare's Sonnet 43, this will set many people's 'unbearable pretension' sirens off, especially as it features one of Rufus' more oblique, wonky melodies. Don't expect Nick 'Grimmy' Grimshaw to play it.

A Woman's Face
Another Shakespearean track - Wainwright was commissioned to write a theatrical cycle based on the sonnets, some of which has made its way on to this album - but this one's a bit easier to get your head round, melodically.

Shame
Bludgeoning grindcore workout in which... - not really, it's another sonnet track. Whether or not you'll enjoy this one really depends on your tolerance for piano-led whimsy and Elizabethan circumlocution. Courteeners fans are likely to be non-plussed.

The Dream
Lyrically we're back in the 21st Century, but the mood is still one of pained melancholy. Like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, this is a song all about the sense of loss you feel after waking from a beautiful vision. The final line is, "The dream has come and gone..."

What Would I Ever Do With A Rose?
Another sweet-scented ballad, in which Rufus casts himself in attitudes of foppish repose ("Sitting here in the afternoon..."), meditating on love and nature like a quill-twirling Bard of Manhattan.

Les Feux d'Artifice T'apellant
The closing aria from Prima Donna - a beautiful tune, but loses some of its impact without the show-stopping mock-fireworks that accompanied it on stage.

Zebulon
Written while Rufus' mother was dying of cancer, this is no hackneyed eulogy. Instead, it's a mosaic of quirky memories ("Your nose was always too big for your face, still it made it look kind of sexy"), closing the album in devastating fashion.
[Listen]

Verdict

Clearly, an album of maudlin ballads inspired in part by Shakespeare's sonnets won't be to everyone's tastes. And it's not as open and confessional as you might think.

For all this record's 'stripped-down' nature, Wainwright remains theatrical rather than personal - there's always a sense in which he's putting on a show, even when it's just him alone at a piano.

That said, if you love simply wallowing in the rich ebb and flow of Wainwright's voice, this album represents its purest, most uninterrupted expression yet.

Rufus Wainright's 'All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu' is released on 5 April

Twitter.com/lukelewis

NME.COM blogs contain the opinions of the individual writer and not necessarily those of NME magazine or NME.COM.

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