The son of gifted singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright (who, as an infant, inspired his father to write and sing “Rufus Is a Tit Man”) inherited his parents’ eye for telling details and wry sense of humor, but the theatrical flair is all his own. His artfully constructed songs owe more to Tin Pan Alley, cabaret and Broadway than to coffeehouses and folk festivals. Born in 1973, Wainwright grew up in Montreal with his mother after his parents divorced; in his teens, the piano-playing prodigy toured with his mother, his aunt Anna and his sister Martha Wainwright as The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, and he was nominated for several Canadian music awards. He’s a hopeless romantic, a youthful gay icon and an inventive songwriter.
Rufus Wainwright is a remarkably sophisticated debut. It opens with “Foolish Love,” a swooning, multi-part ode that begins with Wainwright alone at the piano, lamenting “I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless / I don’t want to smell you and lose my senses,” before blossoming into a jaunty, lushly orchestrated description of avoidance techniques: “I will take my coffee black, never snack/Hang with the wolves who are sheepish.” With elaborate production flourishes by Jon Brion, string arrangements from Van Dyke Parks and backing vocals from sister Martha, the album ranges from the full-bodied pop of “April Fools” and “Beauty Mark” to the somber, sentimental ballads “In My Arms” and “Barcelona.” “Damned Ladies,” a tribute to opera heroines, over-reaches, but this debut immediately put Wainwright in the songwriting league of both Stephin Merritt and Stephen Sondheim.
Remarkably, Poses is even better. The songs are more concise and slightly less ornate — partly because they depend less on Wainwright’s piano, they sound more like contemporary pop than show tunes. They’re also wittier. “California” looks askance at the state’s superficial veneers and celebrity culture: “So much to plunder that I think I’ll sleep instead,” croons Wainwright. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” catalogs weaknesses and indulgences — “And then there’s those other things/which for several reasons we won’t mention” — before concluding, with a dramatic flourish, “so please forgive me if I’m a mess.” From electronic rhythms (most overt on “Shadows,” produced by Propellerheads’ Alex Gifford) to stripped-down simplicity (a cover of Loudon’s winsome “One Man Guy”; the unsettling “In a Graveyard”), the album is cohesive but varied. The re-release of Poses adds a version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” a song he recorded for the soundtrack of I Am Sam.
For his next act, Wainwright intended to make a double-album entitled Want. DreamWorks balked, and split the work into sequential releases titled Want One and Want Two. With a nudge and a wink, Wainwright aimed for an over-the-top artistic statement, and against all odds, hits the mark more often than he has any right to on Want One. From the simple opening of “What a World,” Wainwright stacks layer atop melodramatic layer: by the finish, song he’s managed to shoehorn entire chunks of Ravel’s “Bolero” into the proceedings. It’s a ridiculous exercise in self-indulgence, but the cheeky bastard pulls it off through a mixture of chutzpah and charm. The rest is a breezy pleasure, with such memorable tunes as “I Don’t Know What It Is,” “Movies of Myself” and “11:11.” Wainwright’s lyrics are not always up to snuff — “Vibrate” is especially weak, wasting a promising beginning (“My phone’s on vibrate for you”) and gorgeous melody on pointless observations and a curious attack on the already passé electroclash movement (which few took seriously in the first place) — but the ornate music is exceedingly beautiful.
The original plan was for Want Two to follow Want One into the world by only a few months, but things didn’t go according to plan. The release was delayed and, at one point, looked as if it might be permanently shelved. As a stopgap, four songs were selected from it and issued as an online EP, Waiting for a Want, through iTunes. “The Art Teacher” recounts an affair with an instructor over a Phillip Glass-like piano line, while Wainwright examines his status as a role model on the humorous “Gay Messiah.”
Those four songs all appear on Want Two, which was ultimately released on a different label. That the disc is not as immediately engaging as Want One is clear from the leadoff track, “Agnus Dei,” which is every bit as pretentious as “What a World” but not one bit as likable. Overall, Want Two is darker, with a more political and personal tone, than Want One. If the first album got your attention, he uses the second to tell you what he thinks you need to know. It takes longer to kick in, but when it does, songs like “The One You Love,” “Little Sister” and the Jeff Buckley tribute “Memphis Skyline” join the canon of great Wainwright songs. Taken together, the Wants showcase a daring artist of sometimes dazzling skill. (Want Two includes a bonus live DVD.)