Five years can be a long time for a new Pop release but in Rufus Wainwright’s case this statistic is a little deceiving. Release the Stars was released in 2007 but he has not exactly been sitting waiting for inspiration since then. He successfully staged a note perfect recreation of the 1961 Judy Garland Carnegie Hall concert in London and New York, subsequently releasing it as a DVD and CD in 2009.
Rather than resting after that Rufus wrote and produced a highly successful opera, Prima Donna, which premiered at the Manchester international festival in 2010. At the same time as this he released an album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a sparse, ten track song cycle that was the rawest music he had ever produced. Add into this the death of his mother and the birth of his first child you can see that a five-year gap between mainstream albums doesn’t seen quite so long.
Based on the success of the previous album a lot was expected of this new release. Release the Stars was described as a maximalist (if that is even a word) collection. If it was possible to throw more instrumentation, more complex arrangements and grander themes then that was the album that did it. Rather than trying to out do this, Rufus has wisely taken a different approach to this album. The songs are not as grand and are deceptively simple in places. On first listen only a couple of the songs have that instant appeal. The title track kicks the proceedings off followed by the second track “Jericho”. Both introduce the difference in sound and style to previous efforts. For this album the production duties were handled by current producer to the stars Mark Ronson. He has brought a seventies feel to this with the main stand out instrument being the electric guitar. On previous recordings the songs had a more piano led approach and this change is the first noticeable difference. The second is the tone and theme of the lyrics.
There is a definite light touch and overall optimism about the tracks. On declaring himself “Out of the Game”, Rufus is not looking back to a better time but is instead informing us now that he has moved on and has fundamentally changed in the process. The difference in tone is no more apparent than in the track “Montauk”. This is a message to his daughter asking for patience when she spends time with her two Dads. The song ends with a final verse reminding her that she is part of a larger family including Rufus’ mother, Kate McGarrigle, described as a shadow over the place. Compare this to “Dinner at Eight” from Want One which details the difficult relationship Rufus shared with his father, Loudon Wainwright, in a bitter and resentful way and the differences are crystal clear. Now he is able to look at the a parent child relationship from the other side and in doing so recognises the issues that being a parent can raise.
On first listen the remainder of the album is not as immediate. That is not to say it was a disappointment. Having given it a few more plays the rest of the songs, having become more familiar, are actually stronger and more enjoyable than the immediate tracks. The more subtle production and the strength of the songwriting allows the songs to grow slowly and now some of the ‘lesser’ songs on the album are now my favorites.
One note of warning though. Everything was going very nicely. The final track (on the standard edition), “Candles”, is building to its conclusion when in comes the bagpipes. Now being Scottish you would think that this would stir the heart and bring on images of the hills and glens. Alas no. Tis the sound of a dying cat, in a blender. A minor negative and a very personal one at that.
A grower of an album that rewards with repeated playing. The world tour has been announced and the tickets have been obtained for Glasgow on 14th December. Recommended.