‘Wainwright at his most refined’
Joe Goggins
13:51 10th July 2020

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Anybody looking for Rufus Wainwright to serve up a genuine subversion of his personal rulebook might have to wait until next time; this LP, his ninth, is apparently intended to bring down the curtain on the first act of his career, rather than serve as the opening strains of the second. Accordingly, it’s the title of his last pop record, Out of the Game, that might have proved a more fitting label than Unfollow the Rules; it’s been eight years since he made an album as straightforward as this, spending the intervening time penning his second opera, as well as setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music on 2015’s star-studded Take All My Loves.

If last year’s All These Poses tour suggested an appetite to reckon with the past, Unfollow the Rules has Wainwright facing up to the present. His focus in 2019 was largely on revisiting Rufus Wainwright and Poses, two albums that still play like exercises in precocity, but the reality is that he’s now 46, married and father to a nine-year-old. These days, there are graver matters for him to attend to than comparing new brand-name black sunglasses.

That means grappling with the bigger issues; the closing track, ‘Alone Time’, is a swooning piano ballad on which Wainwright backs himself with several layers of ghostly vocals; it was penned long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but has since been dedicated to those in isolation because of it. ‘Devils And Angels (Hatred)’, meanwhile, paints a scorched-earth portrait of Trump’s America - it’s a doomy, turbulent companion piece to his 2018 single ‘Sword of Damocles’, suggesting a deepening unease with the sharply divided state of his adopted homeland. It’s a world away from ‘Trump Song’, the more lighthearted (if no less excoriating) cut he performed on his tour of the UK two summers ago.

In more personal terms, though, Unfollow the Rules suggests Wainwright is making a largely cheerful progression into middle age. His 2016 relocation to Laurel Canyon inspired a long-overdue love affair with the music of Joni Mitchell, who’s work had been banned in his childhood home by his mother, Kate McGarrigle: she deemed it an unacceptable dilution of the folk sound that she and her sister Anna had so faithfully championed in the sixties. 

‘Damsel in Distress’ is a handsome paean to Mitchell, all fluttering strings and jaunty acoustic guitar, with perhaps the record’s single biggest calling card - a clutch of intertwined vocal tracks - draped over the top. Elsewhere, he’s on delightfully scathing form as he skewers the Los Angeles fashion scene on opener ‘Trouble In Paradise’ - “don’t matter if you're good or bad or mean or awfully nice” - whilst a number of other songs present Wainwright’s life in 2020 as a study in contentment. There’s ‘My Little You’, a sweet ode to his daughter, and ‘Peaceful Afternoon’, a serenade for his husband that glows with the warmth of domestic bliss, as well as with the tranquility he’s found - in both mind and body - as the years have rolled by. The latter point is one accentuated by ‘Early Morning Madness’, a woozy document of a hangover by somebody who is evidently struggling to remember what they actually feel like.

The fallacy that artists are at their best when they’re at their most tortured wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny in Wainwright’s case even if it’s held true more broadly, because it was never the chaotic nature of his former life that made his older work so compelling; it was the wit and the generosity of spirit with which he picked it apart. Those qualities remain in bountiful supply on Unfollow the Rules, even as serenity has come to reign behind the scenes, but the fact that this so often feels like vintage Wainwright begs the question of what his self-heralded second act will actually involve. There are no musical left turns here, no apparent appetite for adventure; ‘Romantical Man’, perhaps the standout, is very much Wainwright doing Wainwright, a rich, piano-driven love letter in two parts to both the London of his youth and to his late mother.

Nobody does Rufus like Rufus, of course, but Rufus has also done Judy, done Shakespeare, done opera; occasionally, given the endearing eccentricity of his catalogue, it’s difficult to shake the sense that any time Wainwright goes mainstream, he operates within himself slightly. Only on ‘This One’s for the Ladies (THAT LUNGE!)’, a shadowy, synth-flecked peculiarity, does he sound as if he’s looking over his shoulder at the Perfume Geniuses or the Christine and the Queens’ of the world.

It’s then that you wonder whether there’s an untapped middle ground to explore between the conventional and esoteric sides of himself - that perhaps that’s where this much-vaunted second act will take him. Then again, the influences he’s already spoken of in that regard suggest he might be happy to pursue a simpler golden age of his own - he’s spoken of emulating Sinatra in his forties, of wanting to write his own Graceland, and of the decades of brilliance that his single biggest role model, Leonard Cohen, still had ahead of him at 46. In that case, Unfollow the Rules bodes well; think of it not as Wainwright at his most accessible, but rather, as Wainwright at his most refined.

Unfollow the Rules is out now via BMG.

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