Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Rufus Wainwright and the perils of happiness

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, March 2015

In his lavishly choreographed concerts during the second half of the last decade, as an encore Rufus Wainwright would mime along, decked in stockings, high heels, lipstick and earrings, to the Judy Garland standard ‘Get Happy’. The exuberant show tune appeared on his 2009 live album Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall, his notoriously audacious tribute to Garland’s 1961 show at the same venue.

This showstopper was, of course, a slice of visual theatre as well as playful high camp. It was also a fitting message, given that Wainwright’s days of drug abuse, destructive relationships, unrequited love and self-loathing appeared to be behind him. Contentment and commitment, it seemed, had arrived in the shape of sobriety, a relationship with a man who would become his husband, fawning admiration from fans the world over and eventually, a daughter.

Getting happy though, changed his music. His first four albums – Rufus Wainwright, Poses, Want One and Want Two – were written during or in the aftermath of those hardships, and each was charged with an electricity and rawness that grew out of his several seasons in hell. Few singer-songwriters have ever strung together such a quartet of records, with the relative calm and poignancy of Rufus Wainwright and Poses giving way to the staggering bombast of the Want albums. Across all four, the music is largely fed, to devastating effect, by the imbalances and angst in his life.

So if it’s reasonable to suggest his studio albums are a document of his life and times, on 2012’s Out of the Game, it sounded like he did get happy. And therein lies the problem: that record saw him coasting, comfortable in his success, his personal life and his artistic identity (some reviews went the whole hog and called the album lazy). With addiction, the strain of relationships with extroverted family members, struggles surrounding his sexuality and imploded romance far behind him, his music had become relatively staid, with no friction or fire to inspire it. Compared to the wild gusto of his first four albums, it appeared that domesticity, true love and clean living had dulled his edge.  

Release The Stars (2007) was arguably the first sign that a comedown was approaching. That album was still strong, as was Out of the Game to a lesser degree, but lacked the sense of crisis of his earlier work. Songs about his publicist (‘Barbara’) and the fripperies of his celebrity friends (‘Rashida’), as well as the syrupiness of ‘Song of You’, pale in comparison to ‘Grey Gardens’, ‘Go or Go Ahead’, ‘Poses’, ‘Dinner at Eight’ or ‘The Consort’.

(The outlier in this thesis is, of course, the majestic All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu (2010), an extraordinary ‘song-cycle’ that did embrace darkness, in the form of grief for his recently deceased mother Kate McGarrigle.)

And all this is nothing new: both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, to use somewhat mainstream examples, produced questionable work when they were in the bosom of familial bliss.

So life is good for Wainwright as he arrives at The Tivoli in Brisbane for his final Australian date in support of his new best-of album, Vibrate. These shows, solo and intimate, are hardly on the scale of ‘Get Happy’. Indeed, there was an air of casualness to the evening: this small venue is far from sold out, and Wainwright sometimes appears to struggle for concentration, fluffing his performance of ‘Beauty Mark’ no less than three times (especially odd given it is among the oldest songs in his repertoire). From his rehearsed between-song banter to even the manner of his wave, here is a man going through the motions, despite the undeniable brilliance of what he is performing.

However, at certain moments in this setting the glint in his eye seems to return and the songs, particularly the older ones, seem to bloom anew. ‘Grey Gardens’, ‘April Fools’, ‘Zebulon’ and ‘Poses’ are all as wonderful as their original versions, perhaps even better given that tonight Wainwright is, even for him, in particularly fine voice (aided by some sensitive vocal reverb). Even Out of the Game’s ‘Jericho’ is palatable when his tenor and (some pretty ropey) guitar playing are all there is to support it. New song ‘Lucy’s Blue’, which again he battles with on piano, is happily more ambitious than most of Out of the Game.

Wainwright’s hour and a half was generally a lovely and occasionally breathtaking trawl through his catalogue. He also performed two songs that hint at how he may regain the urgency of his earlier career. One was his rendering of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 20’, while another was an aria, sung in French, from his opera that premiered in 2009 and was recently recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Prima Donna.

In short, the internal friction that yields more challenging, interesting work may return as he moves away from pop. Prima Donna was ambitious and for some critics, underwhelming, but the fact it flirted with such high stakes and therefore the precipice of failure, invested the work with an energy that was lacking on Out of the Game. A new opera, Hadrian, is on the way and will reportedly premiere in 2018.

He is also set to expand on what he initially explored on All Days Are Nights, and make an album of those Shakespeare sonnets in partnership with an opera singer. The idea grew out of a theatre piece in collaboration with fabled director Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble – it’s another tall order that will probably invite accusations of pretentiousness. He referred to the planned record on stage in Brisbane as “another confusing Rufus Wainwright project that no one knows how to sell”. 

These are self-imposed challenges that demand something extraordinary. But more experimental work is what could see his beautiful, dangerous talent reignited as he moves into areas that do not come so easily. Clearly, he is a master of pop, which he finds almost too effortless, based on the gig at the Tivoli and Out of the Game.

So, if life is balanced, clean and harmonious and thus doesn’t provide him with the material to be a truly penetrating singer-songwriter, perhaps those intangible and essential ingredients, the artist’s own doubts and limitations, can make their way into what he does away from this realm. Opera, conceptual projects and other unusual pathways (he even dabbled in writing a score for a dance production back in 2006) may see Wainwright’s darkness re-emerge as he battles with new demons, such as whether he can pull off the astonishing in more demanding, complex domains. Confidence has never been his problem, so you can be sure he will try, and out of that very struggle may emerge something as deep as Poses or the Want albums.

Robert Wilson has wisely said that Wainwright “found his voice at a very young age”. Thus it is not surprising that after more than 20 years of exploring that voice, he is coming close to wearing it out; a new restlessness is required, even if that means turning away from the accessibility, and the safety net, of pop music. The path of most resistance is the route by which he may regain greatness.

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