(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #77 – released September 23, 2003)
Track listing: Oh What A World / I Don’t Know What It Is / Vicious World / Movies of Myself / Pretty Things / Go or Go Ahead / My Phone’s On Vibrate For You / 14th Street / Natasha / Harvester of Hearts / Beautiful Child / Want / 11:11 / Dinner at Eight
We tend to associate particular albums and songs with times in our lives when we first heard them, and they imprint on us memories we recall as we hear them again. From my early childhood, it’s the soft rock chestnuts that played incessantly on my parents’ car radio: “Baker Street”, “Sailing”, “Eye in the Sky” and the like. From my teens, it’s the somewhat bent modern rock hits that crossed over to top 40, among them “Love Shack”, “Chains of Love”, “Enjoy the Silence” and “Losing My Religion”, the latter leading to Automatic for the People, which I forever link with my senior year of high school. The golden age of commercial alt-rock radio summarizes my college years, while an unlikely but thrilling fusion of turn-of-the-millennium dance-pop and indie rock represents that most hectic of ages, my mid-20s, all too well.
By my late 20’s, having long since cultivated my own voracious taste (like a spider web forever expanding off in different directions), I listened to more music than ever. I consumed discs I was assigned to review for a music website (more on that in a few entries), endless discoveries made via libraries and used CD stores and of course, anticipated new releases from artists I already loved. Whenever I look back on that era and in particular, late 2003, it’s one of the latter that’s still definitive for me: Rufus Wainwright’s third album Want One. Even then, I knew well enough to place it at number one on my year-end list (the only other entry that made it to 100 Albums is Phantom Power (down at #10), which goes to show how much one’s taste changes and mutates over time.)
When his self-titled debut dropped and generated considerable buzz five years before, I didn’t really know anything about this singer/songwriter just three years my senior. Had only faint awareness of his famous musician parents (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), had no clue that he was openly gay (until I saw an MTV interview where he was so flamboyant I can’t fathom staying in the closet was ever an option for him), a rarity among young aspiring pop stars. Still, his debut single, “April Fools” was an instant earworm, and, with its gently baroque Jon Brion production, right up my alley. Rufus Wainwright did indeed herald a new, original talent, but little of its piano-heavy chamber pop was as memorable as the single. Second album Poses (2001) was more promising and idiosyncratic, bursting with hooks (“California”, “Grey Gardens”) and also growing confidence to experiment with various styles, even attempting an audacious, re-contextualized cover of his dad’s song “One Man Guy”.
He resurfaced more than two years later with his third album, and 9/11 wasn’t the only major change reflected within. An infamous New York Times article weeks before its release found Wainwright speaking frankly of going to “gay hell” and back in the interim, his descent into rampant drug use and promiscuous sex followed by a stint in rehab and eventual recovery. He had written and recorded enough songs for a double album originally called Want, but decided to split it into two separate releases cheekily titled Want One and Want Two (the latter arriving some 14 months later.) If you listen to the two back-to-back, it’s a no-brainer as to why he split them apart. With each one clocking in at nearly an hour, even one disc at a time is a lot to take in; the two together would’ve been overkill for all but his most ardent fans.
One immediately notices how much bigger and bolder Want One feels than its predecessors. “Oh What A World” opens not with the lone piano-and-voice of the debut’s “Foolish Love” or Poses’ “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” but a coliseum of multi-tracked humming Rufuses, followed by gargantuan, lone notes from what appears to be a synthesized tuba. “Men reading fashion magazines,” he inimitably brays, kicking off a state-of-affairs preamble that grows increasingly thick and loud until, near the 2:45 mark it borrows nothing less than the brass fanfare from Ravel’s “Bolero”! In producer Marius de Vries, whose prior credits include albums for Massive Attack and Madonna (with partner Nellie Hooper), he’s found a kindred spirit fully attuned to providing an aural canvas large enough for all of his operatic and melodramatic pretensions.
If anything, the next song sports even more layers upon layers. “I Don’t Know What It Is” has a jaunty piano-pounding rhythm and a sanguine melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on Wainwright’s earlier work; however, like “Oh What A World”, it just keeps building and expanding, piling on vocals and instrumental parts and orchestral flourishes, not to mention such characteristically playful touches as a lyric or two borrowed from the Three’s Company theme song. The average listener might find it all a bit too much, but to Wainwright’s credit, the song never falters or collapses—it even elegantly simmers down to a close as its layers gracefully float away against a descendant melody, softly ending on a question mark of an augmented chord.
Having established such a luxuriant soundscape in two tracks flat, Wainwright spends the rest of Want One sustaining its tone over a variety of other arrangements. He makes room for Lindsey Buckingham-like power pop (“Movies of Myself”), a gentle, shuffling jazz ballad complete with a Bacharach-ian trumpet solo (“Harvester of Hearts”), plucky, Noel Coward-esque social commentary (“My Phone’s On Vibrate For You”), more grand symphonic fanfare (“Beautiful Child”) and yes, even some tried-and-true, stripped-down piano-and-voice stuff (“Pretty Things”). What unifies them all is Wainwright’s rare blend of confessional songwriter, literary mettle and boundless theatricality. To paraphrase Nina Simone, as she once noted to her audience in her famous live recording of “Mississippi Goddam”, these are show tunes, but the show for them hasn’t been written yet.
Of course, one could say the same thing for just about any Wainwright composition. Still, Want One is his best album not only for its stylistic advances but also for the newfound candor and introspection in his lyrics and indeed, his overall demeanor. Perhaps fearlessness is a more precise signifier—having gone through addiction and recovery, and having also turned thirty, he predictably sounds wiser and more world weary than before, but also as if he’s reached a turning point where former vices like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” no longer provide ample satisfaction. Desire is still omnipresent (the word “want” is in the title, after all), but he shows more caution and contemplation in his pursuit of it—you could even argue he’s become an adult, even if he can’t resist musing on how he’d rather not be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen in one verse of the title track, only to replace those names with John Lithgow and Jane Curtin (outing himself as a Third Rock From the Sun fan) in the next verse.
Still, maturity alone does not make for great art—it also needs inspiration and ambition, both of which Want One has plenty of. Coming right after those first two tracks, “Vicious World” seems slight and subdued in comparison, but its treated, almost circular electric piano (in an odd time signature, no less) and nimble melody leave an impression. “14th Street” initially screams throwback with its slowly swinging, vintage rock-and-roll beat and chord changes, yet other things such as backing vocals from his mom and sister Martha, occasional blasts of brass on top and the lone banjo on the outro defy such easy categorization. “Movies of Myself” replaces its opening electronic feedback loop with what resembles an insistent Motown beat turned sideways but scans neither like electronica nor Motown thanks to all of its acoustic and electric guitar interplay. And somber closer “Dinner at Eight” tempers its rather traditional orchestral balladry with remarkably cutting words detailing a fracas between him and his father, complete with confrontational phrases like, “So put up your fists / and I’ll put up mine.”
Wainwright’s lyrical prowess and expertise at constructing a song to be an all-encompassing experience most fully coalesces on “Go or Go Ahead”. It begins with softly strummed guitar, soon joined by barely audible vocals—you almost have to strain to hear them at first. Over three verses, the volume and intensity both gradually build as new elements appear, like a slowly skittering electric guitar melody or a brief burst of “do-do-do-do-do” backing vocals. As the third verse ends, everything including the now ascendant melody thrillingly ramps up to full volume for the chorus, which he sings as if his life depends on it: “Go or go ahead / and surprise me,” he wails, followed by a majestic, piercing guitar solo and iterations of a repeated lyric from the verses, “What has happened to love.”
What happens next is a tried-and-true pop music trope, but one Wainwright uses most effectively. Everything quiets back down for another brief verse before it all startlingly swerves back to full volume with a spine-tingling, multi-tracked cry of “AHHHHHHHH!” that leads into the bridge (“Look in her eyes, look in her eyes / forget about the one who’s crying”), itself punctuated by more of those exquisite cries. You can practically feel the entire song swelling and sighing as it carefully spools out over its six-minute duration. “Go or Go Ahead” appealed to me so effusively at 28 (and continues to do so at 42) because it’s exactly the type of song that would’ve been in sync with my hormonal, sensory overloaded teenage self, but with an eloquence and refinement that only an adult who has lived, loved and had their heart broken could adeptly express.
Such lucidity rematerializes on Want One’s penultimate track, “11:11”. One of many obligatory 9/11 songs artists composed in the immediate years after, it finds Wainwright applying his personal account of the day as the basis for an epiphany. “Woke up this morning at 11:11 / Wasn’t in Portland and I wasn’t in heaven / Could have been either by the way I was feeling, / but I was alive, I was alive,” he sings, and it’s his emphasis on those last three words that resonate so deeply over crisply strummed guitars and august but not overpowering timpani drum fills. Rufus being Rufus, he also flashes a little ironic gallows humor (“Realized that everything really does happen in Manhattan”) before offering a way forward, vowing to make up for “precious time we’ve wasted.” Sure, it’s a simple sentiment, but an attainable, meaningful one given its context.
Want One arrived in my life at a time when I myself was searching for a way forward, having come out the other side of a few tumultuous years of essentially learning how to be an adult. Want Two didn’t make nearly the same impact—good as its numerous highlights were, its further-down-the-rabbit-hole dive into its creator’s psyche proved far less cohesive. By then, I was on the cusp of turning thirty and headed towards epiphanies of my own. Wainwright would cultivate a discography touching upon opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland, Neil Tennant and even a live album recorded in my hometown. 2012’s Out Of The Game, perhaps his warmest, most accessible effort remains my favorite of his post-Want career, but I know which record to put on if I ever want to remember the joy and chaos of this now-distant, ultra-specific glimpse in time.
Up next: What to do about a Delightful Nutjob.
“Go Or Go Ahead”: