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The Boston Phoenix No Rimbaud

Rufus Wainwright's smart heart.

By Richard C. Walls

MAY 18, 1998:  Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks) marks the debut of the 24-year-old son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle -- a singer/songwriter who's working an area that's a long way from dad's terrain, though it does have recognizable traces of mom's. Unlike his acerbic and pithy pa, Rufus is deeply romantic, generously melodic, and prone to that painfully elaborate weariness peculiar to youth. With formative influences like Al Jolson, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas (and Kate), it's small wonder that many of his songs combine Tin Pan Alley's brittle felicity with the swooning grandeur of a diva's final aria.

Rufus is gay, and though the current line is that this affects his work as about as much as being left-handed would, it ain't so (actually, that's the current line only if you read promotional material and puff pieces in the New York Times). Although his lyrics aren't always gender specific, his eagerness to melt is suggestive of a theatrically feminine sensibility -- "I don't want to hold you and feel so helpless/I don't want to smell you and lose my senses," he sings on "Foolish Love," with a plaintive resignation that implies just the opposite -- and his confessions of vulnerability are more acute than those of just another sensitive '90s guy.

He's also retro in an effective way, not just because he can call to mind Stephen Foster (or rather the Foster pastiches of Randy Newman), or simply the good old days when a song was a shapely verse and a catchy chorus, but because he does it so unselfconsciously. There's nary a knowing wink in his repertoire, with the possible exception of "Matinee Idol." And even that song -- a tango with a marimba no less, plus the megaphone effect so common to post-"Winchester Cathedral" mock nostalgia -- turns out to be about death, a subject sure to stem any encroaching intimations of camp.

Wainwright accompanies himself on piano, and though the songs tend to be spare, there are many subtle additions, including vocal support from his sister and wistful garnishings of psychedelia on "Danny Boy" (not the old standard) and the Beatle-esque "April Fools" (yes, Beatle-esque). Also on hand for a few tracks is the monumentally unsubtle Van Dyke Parks, whose prancing strings make a hash of a little slice of upper-crust anomie called "Millbrook" but who does add an engaging '50s Cinemascope feel to the equally slight "Baby."

The lyrics are a hit-and-miss affair, though the only real rum rhyme is "looking at hospitals Victorian/feeling as helpless as the Elephant man." Wainwright does torchy but smart ("Wish you were here/To chain you up/Without shame/In my arms" from the same song); he's occasionally loopy in an endearing way ("wondering if there's clouds in heaven" on "April Fools"); rarely is he obscure and "poetic."

"Beauty Mark," which has a McGarrigle-like swinging gait, is a song for his mother, who, it's been reported, took his coming out a bit harder than his more worldly (or perhaps just more indifferent) dad. Delineating all the ways they're different, in appearance and upbringing, he points out that he's inherited her taste (take that as you will) and concludes, "I may not be manly/But I know you love me." It's a potentially mawkish moment that Wainwright is savvy enough to let glide by in an upbeat tune. "Damned Ladies" is another undisguised bit of biography, a homage to all those suffering operatic heroines who inflame his youthful imagination: "Desdemona do not go to sleep/Brown-eyed Tosca don't believe the creep . . . Violetta keep your man locked up," and so on, leading to "Why don't you ladies believe me when I'm screaming/I always believe you . . . "

It may be hackneyed to call Rufus Wainwright promising, but there you have it. He manages to be original without straining for effect, mines various traditions without being corny (or pedantic), and doesn't aspire to be another heir to Rimbaud. He might reconsider the necessity of getting outside help, since his finest effects are the most simply attained, as in the set's grand finale, "Imaginary Love." "Every kind of love/At least my kind of love/Must be an imaginary love," he sings, upping the dramatic ante with each phrase in the manner of one of those '50s pop ballads that bleeds profusely but with defiant pride. The song evokes an era of unironic need, a time when, in writer Walter Mosley's memorable phrase, "no song on the radio was too stupid for my heart."


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