Rufus Wainwright has always been a little bit more…exaggerated…than your average singer. Not bigger than life, exactly, just bigger than himself. He’s a pop musician who recreated Judy Garland’s famous 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, song for song, at Carnegie Hall. He wrote an opera last year for the Met. In French. If I had to file him in a record store, I’d bring back the genre of Baroque Pop and stick him in there with whoever else uses French Horns in pop music today. I believe that if Wainwright had his way, he would not only tour with a band, but a grand piano, an orchestra, backup singers and spotlight shone on him at all times as well.
This is why his most recent studio album, All Days are Night: Songs for Lulu, is a bit of a surprise. After the grandiose orchestration that was his previous album, Release the Stars, All Days are Night is unexpectedly quiet. And gentle. And full of sorrow. Most songs are simply Wainwright and the piano. Gone is the horn section, the full band, the narcissistic and wry lyrics of his previous works. All Days are Night is a completely different creature.
The fact is this album came about when Wainwright was experiencing notable changes in his life, most significantly the death of his mother from cancer—she passed away just months after its completion. Wainwright has never been shy about using his parents, sister, friends and lovers as music material—his previous albums are filled with noteworthy songs about his relationships (listen to “Dinner at Eight” from his 2003 album Want One for the most gut-wrenching example). But this album is positively seeped in them, reflecting just how important and powerful his relationship with his mother was. A standout song on All Days are Night is “Martha,” a song that takes the form of a phone message left for his sister. It’s lyrically and musically strong: exactly, I believe, what Wainwright wanted to accomplish with this album. Rufus tells his sister:
Wainwright’s love songs on All Days are Night have lost the swagger of his previous albums, but been replaced with love songs of a more somber tone. Are they about his mother? His boyfriend? It’s impossible to tell, but it doesn’t matter. In “Sad with What I Have” Wainwright wallows, singing:
Sad with what I have
Never met a more unimpressed, depressed lad
Blue boy doesn’t have a thing on me
Why is it a love song? Because he finishes with the line, “Sad with what I have except for you.”
The songs “True Love” and “The Dream” are the same: self-pitying, sad affairs, but love songs none the less. “Zebulon,” the exquisite, final track on the album, is also a love song, but of a different sort. It’s not about a current love, nor about desire or sex. It seems like Wainwright is singing to a childhood friend; someone removed from his life whom he hasn’t seen in ages and is surprised has popped up in his song, but he takes the opportunity to unburden himself.
My mother’s in the hospital
My sister’s at the opera
I’m in love but let’s not talk about it
There’s so much to tell you
Most interestingly, I think, is Wainwright’s inclusion of 3 Shakespearean sonnets set to music: “Sonnet 43,” “Sonnet 20” and “Sonnet 10.” Lyrically, they fit flawlessly with Wainwright’s other songs—a true tribute to Wainwright’s fine song-writing ability. But on “Sonnet 43” and “Sonnet 10,” Wainwright’s voice is almost too heavy to be compelling and his piano style is the same. Frankly, it drags. It’s too overpowering and doesn’t fit with the piano. But “Sonnet 20” saves him. “Sonnet 20” (A Woman’s Face) is so delicately done, the melody so sweet, that it completely makes up for what the others are lacking. Had Shakespeare commissioned music, this is what he would have wanted.
There are hits and misses on this album. Strong songs, like the album opener “Who Are You, New York?” serves as an ode to New York City, but it’s not necessary an homage. The show-tuney “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now!” is an up-tempo, turbulent piece, which, at first listen, sounds like old Rufus— vain, flamboyant, and clever. But compared to the rest of the album, it’s shockingly out of place. At times (most obviously on “Sonnet 10”) it sounds as though Wainwright’s voice and his piano accompaniment are competing for attention, leaving the listener dissatisfied on both accounts.
Overall, I feel like Wainwright has exposed a new side of himself: one great tragedy has made him more worldly and mature. This album shouldn’t be your first of Wainwright’s—I have a feeling this morose phase won’t last, and honestly, I’m not sure I would want it to. Best listen to Release the Stars (2007) or his brilliant Poses (2001) first. But for a grey day, or a particularly harsh moment of self-loathing, the album is perfect.