Wainwright: To hell and back again

Brendan McCarthy

Back from the depths of a breakdown and a stint in rehab, Rufus Wainwright dedicates his recently-released album to none other than himself. “Want One,” released Sept. 23, is a triumphant return for one of the most distinct and distinguished voices in music today. Wainwright’s album is a powerful mix of meaningful lyrics, rich tones and inescapable melodies.

Poetic and full of emotion, the lyrics come first in a Rufus Wainwright song. The meanings of his songs become only clearer with his genius at the melody. At occasional moments, Wainwright seems to fall into the trap of trying to fit too many words into a line of music. However, this appears to work well on this album, especially in the slower and more sensitive songs.

“Want One” makes a serious departure from the previous album “Poses,” reaffirming Wainwright’s life under new terms – a rebirth in many ways. In it, the artist addresses issues with his family, love-life and life in general.

Son of folk musician, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus’s strained relationship with his father has been well publicized. In the poignant “Dinner at Eight,” we hear a son contemplating this turbulent relationship, but ultimately affirming the love between a father and son. In “Want,” the younger Wainwright sings, “I really don’t want / To be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen / I just want to be my Dad.” The familial aspect of the album is further strengthened by the contribution of Martha Wainwright, Rufus’s sister, on vocals.

The album is crafted as a performance; the songs fit together almost like a story. The opening track “Oh What a World” is infused with the melody from a Broadway musical. The CD sounds like it should be listened to in an empty, echoing concert hall. This influence comes from Wainwright’s fascination with classical music and opera.

“Go or Go Ahead” crescendos into a bold, rich sound that almost feels too big for mere speakers. Wainwright sings, “Look in her eyes / Look in her eyes / Forget about the ones that are crying.” It is the highpoint of the album.

Most striking about the album is the way in which Wainwright uses it as a tool for his recovery from addiction. The optimistic “11:11” is an affirmation of waking up and feeling alive; while in the ominous “Vicious World,” Wainwright asks, “Oh Lord what have I done to myself?” The record is a dialogue of peaks and valleys in Wainwright’s life.

“Want One” is only half of the story; a companion album, “Want Two,” will be released early next year. From what’s been heard so far, there is much to look forward to. While “Want One” is a great album, it is not as accessible as Wainwright’s most acclaimed “Poses.” It is a more serious album, losing some of Wainwright’s pop wit. Nonetheless, it clearly displays Rufus Wainwright’s artistic genius, while also demonstrates his devastating humanity.