Sunday, February 27, 2005

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: WANT TWO

"Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may."
(Wordsworth, "Resolution and Independence," 1807)

It begins with a scraping, atonal improvising solo violin. Momentarily you might think that you have put on one of the Clive Bell/Sylvia Hallett duet pieces from the new Freedom Of The City 2004: Small Groups CD in error – the opening couple of minutes of "A Skein" in particular are virtually identical, except in this instance the onomatopoeic function seems to be of someone struggling to climb out of their coffin. But soon a low-string drone and a cimbalom join the violin and a distinctly Eastern – almost Qaawali-like – minor key modality comes into being, now reminiscent of the opening section of Part III of Keith Tippett’s Frames (how close, the unanticipated links between Raga Bahar and John Dowland). And eventually a large-sounding yet essentially humble tenor voice proclaims the "Agnus Dei," the Christian mass for peace. The strings become larger in number, the violins’ commentary now becoming more urgent as if working towards a climax…

…until, at 4:10, the mole, the resurrected, emerges into the light and the orchestra shifts the perspective ever so slightly to reveal a major chord out of Vaughan Williams via Tallis. Now the voice flies, in the confidence that its plea of "Dona nobis pacem" will be heard and acknowledged, before the incantation bows its head and the prayer ends. Life has been restored.

"The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout."
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows, chapter I: "The River Bank")

What I have just described is "Agnus Dei," the opening track of Want Two, the new album by Rufus Wainwright. To say that this record is a quantum leap from 2003’s Want One would be a gross understatement. Whereas Want One was very much Wainwright’s Pet Sounds – cautiously adventurous but lyrically and emotionally rooted in a delayed sense of familial betrayal ("Dinner At Eight") – Want Two is his SMiLE; still accessible but now openly challenging the listener to keep up, to tune into and align themselves with what Wainwright is expressing and how he is expressing it. In musical terms, think a cross between Escalator Over The Hill (an audacious gallimaufry of eclectic yet umbilically linked tropes) and The Queen Is Dead (a procession of profoundly felt yet caustically hilarious lyrics; both records end with their protagonists left in a nearly empty bed).

"The One You Love" is the closest reference point to Wainwright’s previous work; one of those angular guitar-chopping power pop descendents of a song which Elliott Smith or Elvis Costello might have sung, but taken into a different and more intriguing realm by the devil in the detail; that runaway train of a piano figure articulating Wainwright’s confusion ("I’m only the one you love/Am I only the one you love?") and the unexpectedly sharp backing vocals from sister Martha.

"Peach Trees" is the abandoned widower of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s "Miss My Love Today" transposed into the sunlit graveyard of Brian Wilson’s "In Blue Hawaii." Over a slowly and deliciously unfolding pool of opaque slide guitars and vibraphones, reminiscent of kd lang swimming in her most luscious lagoon of persuasion ("Wash Me Clean"), Wainwright is pining for his former Other and declares that no one will take their place – "Under the peach trees/There I will be…until you come and get me." The alternatives – "I’m so tired of waiting in restaurants/Reading the critics and comics/With a waiter with a face made for currency/Like a coin in ancient Rome" – are uninviting, and eventually he crawls towards the resting place of James Dean, and will, if necessary, die waiting for the miracle (and that sudden, amplified wave of pedal steel at 2:40 sounds more like a tsunami than anything else).

Thereafter Wainwright visits the world of the baroque. "Little Sister" is a Mozartian pastiche, its courtly strings cushioning the coded warnings about the world which Rufus gives (presumably to Martha). "The Art Teacher," recorded live in Montreal, is the record’s most immediately touching song. Over a cyclical Philip Glass piano line, Wainwright sings from an explicitly female point of view ("I was just a girl then") about a schoolgirl crush on a teacher who "told me he liked Turner/And never have I turned since then." Unfulfilled, the song’s protagonist goes on to marry "an executive company head" and is consequently now sufficiently well off to purchase a Turner painting – the CD booklet is illustrated with details from Turner’s "Luxembourg seen from the Fetschenhof," picturing an isolated, hermetic and seemingly unreachable citadel – but Wainwright’s choke of grief on the words "I own one" reveals this to be scant compensation for the loss of true love. There’s a nicely symmetrical balance between the opening verse’s "There I was in uniform" and the closing verse, mirroring her current status – "Here I am in this uniformish pantsuit sort of thing" – but hear the encased rage of Wainwright’s voice as it sings "any other man."

This Montreal live recording segues into "Hometown Waltz" in which Wainwright fantasises about torching his hometown, perhaps because of the "drummers and jugglers of Montreal" who "don’t even exist at all," more possibly due to the possibility of rediscovering his Other once more ("Maybe I’ll catch him on his way to the shop"), but most probably because of the intense frustration which he feels at never truly being able to break away from home – "Everything operates on the unattainables/Then you hear your mother laugh attached to the ‘phone." Behind him, his mother and aunt (the McGarrigles) are indeed in attendance, and the delicate accordion/violin-led Quebecois waltz ends slightly shambolically, as if to buffer Wainwright’s concluding question of "Will you ever ever ever go?/Ever ever ever find a way?"

"This Love Affair" is a tenderly wounding ballad – a farewell to everything approaching "life" – impaled between Schubert and Legrand. Walking away – to where? "I don’t know/Just away from this love affair." When Wainwright sings "Not that I don’t like cruising" he does so with a palpable, sopranino-pitched grief which could lead one to substitute "living" for "cruising" (or indeed for "waltzing" in the next stanza). Drowned in his grief, he can still fire off the jibe, "I don’t know why I’m watching all these white people dancing" – compare and contrast with his desperate, starving howl of desire in "The One You Love" of "Let’s fuck this awful art party/Want you to make love to me and only to me in the dark."

And then we come to the album’s highlight and doubtless the track likely to be its most controversial, the extraordinary "Gay Messiah." Over another gentle waltz, this time scored with a caressing Johnny Marr-esque acoustic guitar line, it might be facile to call "Gay Messiah" the song Morrissey has been too afraid to write, but the unprepared listener will be startled and tickled by the forthright Wainwright’s shameless and passionate wedding of the spiritual and the carnal. Indeed the opening quatrain of "He will then be reborn/From 1970s porn/Wearing tubesocks with style/And such an innocent smile" is a peak of which Morrissey remains occasionally able still to reach. "Rufus the B Baptist I be/No I won’t be the one/Baptised in cum" personifies this bold attack on stupid conservatism of all stripes which hopefully will get mainstream America – and by the current looks of things, mainstream Britain – self-righteously annoyed.

From the gleeful warning of "Better pray for your sins," the album then moves into its most emotionally moving song, the Jeff Buckley tribute "Memphis Skyline." With its carefully embracing strings and unhurried, out-of-tempo piano, as well as a vocal which trembles on the generous verge of complete collapse, here Wainwright approaches the seductively vulnerable genius of the Dennis Wilson of "Cuddle Up" and "Thoughts Of You." "Always hated him for the way he looked in the gaslight of the morning," Wainwright reminiscences before taking himself (a)back: "Then came Hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia/For me in my room…living." The piano then twinkles with kisses of indecision before the full orchestra comes in to enable the sun to rise, Wainwright practically in tears as he blesses the departed drunk sweetheart – "So kiss me, my darling, stay with me ‘til morning/Turn back and you will stay/Under the Memphis skyline." Any listener not moved by this selflessly searing performance should make their way towards objects easier to deal with, such as Bloc Party, eager guitar-waving Alsatians who will lick their face and agree with everything they think.

For no sooner have the strings settled on "Memphis Skyline" than they divert into atonality as Wainwright ascends the roof of the world and surveys the dismal future awaiting all of us in "Waiting For A Dream." No doubt as a result of the production involvement throughout the album of Marius de Vries, this track enters Massive Attack territory as volcanic bass and desolately-ascending piano echo Wainwright’s treated (dehumanised? in outer space?) vocal. Moving from the internal frets of "You are not my lover, and you never will be/’Cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me" (and the entry of the bass at the first of these lines, coupled with Wainwright’s suddenly lowering voice, is a moment of punctum ominosity), Wainwright turns his gaze onto the incinerating planet – "There’s a fire in the priory/And an ogre in the Oval Office," and ruefully acknowledges the new onset of Aids: "Yesterday I heard the plague is coming/Once again, to find me." The song is a startling counterpart to Massive Attack’s "Antistar," and indeed the keeningly high entry of the strings at 3:20 provides a similar moment of global transcendence. Finally, never sounding more broken, Wainwright offers a more timorous prayer: "Now can I finally sleep again?"

"Thou knowest all; I sit and wait
With blinded eyes and hands that fail,
Till the last lifting of the veil
And the first opening of the gate."
(Oscar Wilde, "The True Knowledge")

On the cover of Want One, Wainwright was pictured in armoured knight garb, as St Sebastian; here, on the cover of Want Two, he is clad in the flowing locks and dresses of the Lady of Shallot. And in the song "Crumb By Crumb," with its jolly wheezing Dixieland gait, both sides of him finally meet, unite and determine to follow the Hansel and Gretel trail "crumb by crumb in this big black forest" until he can come to terms with and recognise "the future of my understanding of love." Rufus and Rufus stroll off, arm in uncertain arm, into a glowing sunset of a kind.

But that is not the end of it.

"The sentence now passed on him was to a man of his culture a form of death."
(Oscar Wilde, "Pen, Pencil and Poison," apropos the convicted Bank-forger Thomas Griffiths Wainewright)

It begins with a lightly picked acoustic guitar. Momentarily you might think that you have put on an old Bread album (how close, the unexpected links between the voices of Rufus Wainwright and David Gates), except in this instance the lyrical function seems to be of someone getting off in order to avoid getting out of his bed. "An Old Whore’s Diet/Gets me going in the morning." But soon an unexpectedly acerbic backing vocal (Martha my dear) and a distinctly oscillating major/minor key modality comes into being, now reminiscent of the priceless plastic shiny yellow two-step of Ze Records. And eventually a throbbing vibrator of a contralto voice – Antony, the frontman of Antony and the Johnsons, of which latter more anon – joins Wainwright in this prayer for self-relief. The two voices become larger in volume, the continuo commentary now becoming more urgent as if they are getting to the point of climax…

…but notice how the chords gradually shift to being played by a crepuscular string quartet until the rhythm eventually drops out, and a short Bartokian meditation by the strings is brutally evicted from Bluebeard’s castle by a demented Bavarian drinking waltz over which the lovers scream: "Hell! Either here or hell will do! Either here or Hell will employ you! SUICIDAL ASSISTANCE!!!!"

"Defenceless under the cobalt gun"
(BS Johnson, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry)

Now the ghost of David Gates flies back into the safety of its self-constructed cage, in the confidence that its plea of "To say I love you/Gets me going where I want to" will never be heard and acknowledged, before the victim bows his head and the orgasm ends. Life has been abruptly shut off with a caustic acoustic guitar chord bearing the unmistakable onomatopoeic meme: "fuck it."

"I have dealt with the theme of the open space we appropriate for ourselves, and of our temptation to let strangers look on our nudity like at a shop window. In these instances, we actually wear our nudity like a garment, and displaying it relates to the same sort of excitement we feel when, conversely, we prepare our bodies, dress them and put on our make-up to seduce. I emphasise the word excitement, the rising tide of desire waiting for a response from the outside world. It surely cannot be excitement that we feel when we recoil into the closed world of pain or in the immediate satisfaction of elementary functions: when the body doesn’t have the strength to occupy any other space than the sunken outline carved into a mattress, when the spew of vomit splatters the feet, when a dribble of shit trickles between our thighs. If there is any pleasure in this, it is not that the body feels struck by something greater than itself, it is that it feels bottomless, as if by exteriorising the activities of our entrails we could accede to our entire surroundings."
(Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life Of Catherine M., chapter 3: "Confined space")