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À Bout de Souffle

All work and No Play Makes Rufus Wainwright a Paranoid Boy

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/13/2002

Sneezing, sniffling, and doing his very best to get through a long day of phone interviews despite a lingering cold, Rufus Wainwright calls from Los Angeles and summons his best press behavior. "It's always busy here in Hollywood," he says. "Bring 'em in, hype 'em up, ship 'em out. But I love the West Coast. I have dear, dear friends in L.A. And I have a lot of respect for--well, I don't have a lot of respect for it. It's basically hell on earth. I really can't spend a lot time out here or I go crazy."

It's an opinion echoed on Wainwright's latest album, Poses. In "California," a shimmy-and-shake piano-driven ditty, his coy, velvety tenor laments that the Golden State is "such a wonder that I think I'll stay in bed/ big-time rollers, part-time models, so much to plunder that I think I'll sleep instead." These wry comments come wrapped in such a florid melody and jovial mien that you'd miss the dis if you're not paying attention.

Wainwright's lyrics and his comments are but two instances of his dry, literate wit, which crops up all over Poses and in conversation. His speaking voice--which has a gently lilting nasal intonation (perhaps it was just the cold)--betrays none of the expansive range that he showcases in song. After the moody quietude of his self-titled 1998 debut, Wainwright looked to move in the direction of contemporary cabaret, where Kurt Weill and Cole Porter exchange droll repartee in a smoky parlor lined with dusty belle-époque tchotchkes. He was to be the heir to chamber pop's throne.

And it probably wouldn't have surprised anybody had he ascended. The son of celebrated musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright grew up in Montreal with his mother after his parents split. He came out way before his music put him in Rolling Stone, and when it did he handled the "homosexuality issue" with such nonchalance and poise that it became a nonissue. All that was left was the talented young man writing songs and singing with a world-weariness that belied his age.

But on Poses, the closest Wainwright comes to his debut's dour demeanor is on the tidal-pool-tranquil title song, an intertwined ballet of observation and memory that's rustled by lyrics that flow like a Proustian run-on sentence of the here and then. As with that long-winded author, though, the poignancy is found in the blunt comments amid the prose paisleys, the roughs in the diamonds. And Wainwright's mouthful lyrics--"reclined amongst these packs of reasons/ for to smoke the days away into evenings"--are as puffy and chewy as a Japanese steamed dumpling and almost as idiosyncratically tasty.

Such lyrical panache is but one of the fresh wrinkles Wainwright displays on Poses. Musically, he's flaunting new ideas as well. In "Shadows," Wainwright tries a soul groove on for size, snapping beatitude against a trip-hop backbeat. "Rebel Prince" discombobulates like a Tom Waitsian Tin Pan Alley stroll through a downtrodden dream. And on "One Man Guy," a cover of one of his father's songs, an acoustic guitar line paints a self-love country-gospel dirge.

Throughout, Poses is strewn with many more narrative threads. "This album was about living in the city and walking that fine line between happiness and death--in a cocktail dress," Wainwright cracks. "My records tend to be pretty hilly. There's a lot of different places you can go. But I try to make it be about my life, which is very textured. I mean, I live a very contemporary life. I'm not dressing up like Oscar Wilde or anything. I always hate when people do that."

The Wilde quip--something you suspect would have tickled the Irish playwright to no end--is not only an example of Wainwright's sense of humor rearing its head again, but a slight nod to his cultural bias. Wainwright's sophisticated musical melodrama owes as much to his musical family as it does to his growing up with the Gallic grandeur of Montreal, a city that's a little dollop of French le feu de paille in the New World.

"It was lovely, but it was also kind of lonely," Wainwright says of his Quebecois upbringing. "I went to French schools for 10 years. And English [speakers] up there are kind of a minority. But it's very beautiful, very romantic, but also very cold."

The same could be said of his music. Warm in tone with pockets of sentimental chills, Wainwright's songs recall postwar 1940s and '50s French popular music, when people such as Boris Vian, Charles Aznavour, and Jacques Brel dished out sassy pop daffodils spiked with cynicism. "I was highly influenced by French culture," he says. "It's interesting because these French cultural influences have kind of been forgotten a little bit in America, and in France for that matter, but in Quebec it's always been there."

Lately, though, he's had to spend more time in Los Angeles and on the road, even though he'd prefer to be home. "I have been trying to stay in Montreal as much as I can, just to get a hold on the new world order," Wainwright says. "[Poses] seems so far away now--especially after Sept. 11. It seems like another world. I want to go right in and record [a new album] before the big deadline of the planet comes."

Snide comment or apprehensive suspicion? Either way, Wainwright reports that he has prepared enough material for a new record--he simply hasn't recorded it yet. But he's also seen pop culture's tea leaves and thinks that there may be something to worry about, so he hopes to complete another album this year before it all comes down.

"I started [writing the new album] before Sept. 11, going in this direction, but it is about the big issues in life," he says. "I had already sort of sifted into that mind-set. I knew it was weird when the [2001] MTV Video Awards were at the Metropolitan Opera. It was just so wrong. That would be the first sign of the apocalypse."

Rufus Wainwright plays Towson's Recher Theatre Feb. 17.

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