There’s something a little disingenuous about opening your album with a song called “Do I Disappoint You?”. This is how the fifth album by Rufus Wainwright begins: with wave after wave of opulent, complex orchestral flourishes, building and building; with a multitracked Martha Wainwright screaming “CHAOS!” and “DESTRUCTION!”; and with Wainwright himself, coy in the midst of so much melodrama. It’s a theatrical set-piece pretending to be an anti-climax. It’s both lovely and knowingly ridiculous. And it’s also rather good.
Wainwright, as you may have noticed, has been making fine records for nearly a decade now, and “Release The Stars” might just be his best yet. I must confess to being a little anxious about this one. The appointment of Neil Tennant as Executive Producer filled me with vague foreboding. And Wainwright’s recent re-enactment of Judy Garland‘s Carnegie Hall concert suggested a brassier, crasser career turn.
Happily, though, nothing here remotely resembles the Pet Shop Boys – in fact, it’s the best-sounding album Wainwright has made, with some really inventive orchestral arrangements, a couple of satisfying experiments with guitar rock (notably “Between My Legs”), some exceptionally subtle moments, and less of the hygienised studio gloss that was mildly annoying on “Want One” and “Want Two”.
As for the Garland thing, only the closing title track has the big Broadway swagger to it, and even then, Wainwright’s voice – nasal, schooled in indie stealth as much as Tin Pan Alley bravado, innately mournful – proves to be a brilliant counterpoint to the orchestral flash.
I’m probably going to write a lot more about this record in the next few weeks, for Uncut magazine as much as this blog, so I don’t want to go on about it too much here. But there are songs on “Release The Stars” that, I think, are a match for Wainwright’s very best: the languid protest song, “Going To A Town”, and the tremulous, affecting “Not Ready For Love” are reminiscent of the low-key highlights of his underrated 2001 collection, “Poses”. Best of all, today at least, is “Slide Show”, which features a classically wiry Richard Thompson guitar solo, duelling with giant orchestral stabs and Wainwright, again, being commendably understated amidst all the grandeur.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fantasy about Brandon Flowers and crisps. . .