The first time I encountered Rufus Wainwright was at the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park five years ago after a friend had cajoled me into joining her for a spontaneous post-work “treat”. Wainwright was the supporting act for Keane (it gets better) and had been given a slot just after James Blunt (I told you).
In hindsight he seemed somewhat misplaced in the line-up with his less-than radio-friendly sound and his frankly astonishing talent. With his theatrical and flamboyant persona, issues-laden lyrics and unconventional sound, Wainwright was clearly an artist who divided audiences; you were either with him or you weren’t. I was firmly in the former category and have been ever since.
Six albums on since the launch of his career and a series of Judy Garland tribute concerts later, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu is Wainwright’s latest offering and his most moving work to date. The first record released since the death of his mother, folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died from a rare form of cancer on 18 January this year, it becomes apparent after the first listen that darkness is the album’s central theme.
All Days are Nights – whose ‘Lulu’ part of the title is inspired by the havoc-wreaking character played by Louise Brooks in the 1929 German silent movie Pandora’s Box – consists of nine tracks and in true I-am-a-high-brow-artiste Wainwright-style, three adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets also appear on the record, which he set to music for a theatrical production in Berlin in 2009. Unlike his previous work, which combines lush orchestrations and complex string arrangements, all of the opulence has been stripped away to a bare bones effect, allowing the spotlight to fall upon a single piano, dusted with Wainwright’s sumptuous vocals. It is a brave move, leaving yourself open to scrutiny if you’ve grown accustomed to the support of a full band and backing singers (who once included Joan Wasser of Joan As Police Woman and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons). But then again, this isn’t Brendan Flowers having a go, it’s Rufus Wainwright.
From the opening-track, ‘Who are you New York?’, where Wainwright recounts an obsessive search for an unnamed object of desire against a backdrop of the famous city, to ‘So Sad With What I Have’, a more reflective, self-pitiful piece where he opines, “How could someone so bright love someone so blue?”, his bruised, drawn-out baritone and intricate, swirling piano arrangements dominate throughout.
In ‘Martha’, the conversational lyrics inspired by Wainwright’s sister, Martha, are set to twinkling piano which becomes increasingly erratic in parts where, for the first time, we discover that even the Wainwright duo experience the same occasional frustrations we have when it comes to our siblings – “It’s your brother calling, Martha please call me back…”
‘Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now’ lifts the mood of the album with its jaunty deliverance, gradually swelling into a more cabaret-style sound. ‘Les feux d’artifice t’appellent’ is the closing aria from Wainwright’s debut opera, Prima Donna, which is currently showing at Sadler’s Wells in London (12-17 April) to critical acclaim. The track is a decadent and dramatic piece, with a crescendo-style ending where Wainwright taps on the piano’s sounding board and runs his hands along its strings to mimic the sound of fireworks illuminating the Paris skyline.
The closing track, ‘Zebulon’, written while Wainwright’s mother was dying of cancer, washes into lush fields of melancholy, and is perhaps the most emotive track on the album. It takes on a haunting and lingering tone, where he reminisces on the happier times of his childhood but also voices his disillusion about the harsh realities of the world.
All Days are Nights is a complex record which may not cater to everyone’s tastes, but Wainwright’s ambitious work has never been produced for mass-market uptake. Some critics have cited his musical endeavors as inaccessible and pretentious; however, in an age where most musicians are into recycling and you feel like you’ve heard pretty much everything before, his work continues to remain inspired without being derivative.
Listening to the album is a voyeuristic experience as you cannot help but sense that its manifestation was a creative outlet for Wainwright during his darkest hours. The decision to fuse minimal, yet sophisticated, piano arrangements with pure, heartfelt vocals emphasises his solitude in the lead up to his mother’s death, exposing a more vulnerable side of him – rarely has he sounded so intimate, confessional or raw.
All Days are Nights is Wainwright’s most assured, imaginative and beautiful album to date, where he has managed to produce another bewitching set of songs through his own emotional turmoil.
Categories ,1929, ,album, ,All Days Are Nights, ,Antony and The Johnsons, ,Antony Hegarty, ,folk, ,Joan As Police Woman, ,Joan Wasser, ,Judy Garland, ,Kat Phan, ,Kate McGarrigle, ,Louise Brooks, ,Martha Wainwright, ,Pandora’s Box, ,review, ,Rufus Wainwright, ,Singer Songwriter, ,Songs For Lulu
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