Up, Up, and Away

Photo: David Slijper

One of the songs on Rufus Wainwright’s new album, Want Two, called “Waiting for a Dream,” has a line about “an ogre in the Oval Office,” and though the tune was written more than a year ago, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter says with a jagged laugh, “well, there’s not an ounce of falsity in that now, is there?” His voice is crackly over a cell phone in Coventry, England, where he’s embarked on a tour, but he suddenly booms with mock bombast: “I am the enemy now: a big, gay songwriter!”

You might think that Want Two would be the very worst place to start if you’re new to what might be called the Rufus Wainwright Experience. After all, Two is, as its title implies, the second part of 2003’s Want One—the result of an outburst of creativity (“I wrote at least 30 songs around that time: I ate, slept, and shat music,” he says) whose sprawl convinced Wainwright and his record company, Geffen, that, like Kill Bill and Lord of the Rings, it should be issued in separate releases. The danger, of course, is that Want Two will be perceived (at best) as a sequel and (at worst) as sloppy seconds. And if you’re a newcomer to Wainwright’s work, you’d find he has two previous CDs out there, and it would inform your listening to know something of his lineage as the son of the superbly witty singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright and son/nephew of the brilliant folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

But it turns out that Want Two is, in fact, an ideal way to get to know Rufus. In addition to its dozen lush, mostly engrossing songs, the package includes a full-concert DVD filmed in San Francisco, and you get to see as well as hear why Wainwright’s sizable cult is bananas for his rueful tenor croon, his out-gay romanticism, his cutting asides, his shrewd wordplay, and his unguarded emotionalism. Trained at the piano to play Stephen Foster and to harmonize on French-language folk-music family sing-alongs, Wainwright benefits from an almost staggering diversity of influences. Influenced by Cole Porter and the pre-rock generation of saloon singers, championed by Van Dyke Parks (the producer-performer of his own rococo solo discs and a Brian Wilson collaborator), recently called by Elton John “the best songwriter alive by far,” Wainwright carries a lot of musical history in his sharp-sideburned head and on his narrow shoulders.

Yet he bears this influence with both a graceful lightness and a strong sense of purpose. Born in Rhinebeck, raised in Quebec after his parents divorced, Wainwright has, as he puts it, “been blessed and cursed” with music-biz opportunities. Yes, having a mom who was signed to Warner Bros. got his demos heard and enthused over by everyone from Michael Stipe to the company president. But as the son of a father whose autobiographical writing included a lot of squirmy, if moving and hilarious details about the child Rufus (as in Loudon’s immortal ode to breast-feeding, “Rufus Is a Tit-Man”), he’s had to fight Oedipal as well as artistic battles to forge his own style.

In this, being gay helped. “My parents were always cool about it,” he told me a few years ago. “Worried about homophobia, but cool.” Now, he notes, “loving opera and Broadway musicals and men made me different from [the rest of the family], and so I could be wicked and playful in my own way.” Given Wainwright’s playfulness, the puns of Want Two’s title—a suggestive “Want To?”; a pleading “I Want To”; and the yearning, negative meaning of the key word: want, a lack of something essential in one’s life—are all appropriate to the music here. “Some of the songs were written during a dark time in my life,” he says, referring to a druggy bender that was encapsulated in the headline that ran over a 2003 New York Times profile: RUFUS WAINWRIGHT JOURNEYS TO ‘GAY HELL’ AND BACK.

Wainwright is at once a throwback and a move forward: the child Elton John and Lucinda Williams could never have.

“Yeah,” he says, laughing, “I took a lot of shit from my friends and my fans for that phrase ‘gay hell.’ ” Currently, he says, “I’m doing great, but I’m claiming that chapter in my life as a private issue.” Wainwright maintains an apartment in Gramercy Park, and says, “If anything, I’m more interested in gay heaven these days.” Which means, in his private life, “love is a lot better now that I’m not basing it on the movie Cabaret.” And musically, he has the dazzling audacity to commence Want Two by chanting the Agnus Dei, the Latin Catholic prayer that implores God to “take away the sins of the world.” “It may be a grandiose gesture,” he says, “but I’ve always been drawn to that anyway. And I conceived it seriously—at the outset of the Iraq war, as a way of asserting something that’s not fashionable now, a kind of spiritual pacifism.”

Stylistically, Wainwright isn’t particularly fashionable, either. He’s not pop in the sense of, oh, say, Clay Aiken (though what an American Idol Wainwright would make—the first contestant more caustic than Simon Cowell). He plays guitar as well as piano, but he doesn’t fit the sensitive-singer-songwriter mold. He’s at once a throwback and a move forward: the child Elton John and Lucinda Williams could never have.

On the first Want, Wainwright too often sounded in love with the sound of his own voice—specifically, with the buzzing hum he gets when he draws out the last word in a line. He knows it can be mesmerizing, a vulnerable vibration of urgency or regret, but it’s also a vocal trick he has deployed too often in the past. Then, too, on his previous albums, the melodic range was more narrow, to showcase that dizzying murmur. But it was becoming a trademark sound that risked being tedious—that’s a reason why one of the few songs he’s recorded that he hasn’t written, his 2002 cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” (on the soundtrack of the movie I Am Sam), seemed so exhilarating: Here was Wainwright venturing out of his usual territory, with blissfully transcendent results.

There’s a lot more diverse music on Want Two, including something that sounds a lot like one item he’s never had: a hit single. “The One You Love,” featuring harmonies by his sister, Martha, and drumming by the Band’s Levon Helm, is a rollicking romance that would sound where-can-I-buy-it? catchy if played in an episode of The O.C.

No doubt about it, Rufus is making some mass-market moves. He appears in the new Martin Scorsese film about Howard Hughes, The Aviator: “I play a character based on Bing Crosby,” he says. Naturally: a crooner. “Harvey Keitel was hanging around the set, and he asked me how I was gonna ‘prepare’ for my role. I said, ‘Um, I dunno—memorize my lines?’ Harvey said he was going to look at the daily rushes, and if I wasn’t any good, he was gonna take over my role, because, he said with this growl, ‘Marty needs a hit!’ ”

Rufus gives a hooting laugh. “I guess he liked what he saw, because I never heard from him again!”

Up, Up, and Away