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Rufus Wainwright (Courtesy photo)
When Rufus Wainwright emerged with his self-titled debut album in 1998, he felt like an inspired anachronism: a young, Canadian Randy Newman with an angel's honeyed pipes, blessed/cursed with the audacity to think he could scale the operatic heights of Bizet or Verdi.

Poses, Wainwright's 2001 followup, was a pained reaction to the first flush of celebrity, but on a musical level, it also represented his self-conscious attempt to prove that he could be contemporary, that he was a pop artist in tune with his times.

With Want One, Wainwright pulls together all his contradictions, melding his influences so gracefully that it doesn't seem even slightly odd for him to make an electroclash reference in a song inspired by Bizet's Carmen ("Vibrate"), or to borrow the chord progression from Billy Preston's "Nothing From Nothing" for a song about returning to his old Canucky home ("14th Street").

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Pre-release buzz on Want (a second volume is in the can, tentatively scheduled for release next year) has focused on Wainwright's descent into - and recovery from - a wildly decadent phase that found him experimenting with crystal meth and moving though a parade of one-night stands. This might explain why Want is suffused with the scent of confusion, with the sense that Wainwright's ambitions and moral certitudes are collapsing, and he is scrambling to get a grip.

Either in spite of - or because of - its emotional confusion, the album's music is lush and sweeping. While Wainwright broods about his gypsy lifestyle in the opening "Oh What a World," the song's aural backdrop explodes into a grandiose fanfare from Ravel's Bolero, turning his torment on its head.

Some may find such grand gestures offputting. Even Wainwright worshipers can't deny that he is a self-absorbed melodrama queen, but he also sees the comedy in each of his mini-tragedies. After all, how many songwriters would find room in a desperate love plea for the following line?: "I tried to dance to Britney Spears/I guess I'm getting on in years."

Outrageous talents can get away with outrageous conceits, and Want One offers the strongest proof yet that Wainwright qualifies. •

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March 25, 2020


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