Between Desire and Deficiency

Hedonist, Drama Queen, and Social Butterfly, in Self-Imposed Exile From the Pleasure Dome

"Stop me making movies of myself," professional drama queen Rufus Wainwright pleads on his new Want One. It's a less disingenuous request than it seems—the underlying instinct being preservation not modesty —but out of character all the same. Wainwright's self-mythologizing compulsion (along with his unembarrassed need for undivided attention) is precisely what's allowed our party-monstrous hero to pack a biopic's worth of foolish loves and rebel princes into the space of five years and three confidently outsize and overripe albums.

The self-titled first release (1998) showcased an anachronistic fop, breathless and hungry for experience, in a debutante daze. On Poses (2001), as if attesting to the amount of interim fast living, he was already the seen-it-all scenester, a rueful hedonist and judgmental voyeur surveying his vampiric kingdom from a Chelsea Hotel window. Now, having gorged and suppressed cravings more toxic than cigarettes and chocolate milk, the social butterfly is in larval rebirth. A gently roiling season in hell, Want One (Want Two is due next year) finds Wainwright in self-imposed exile from the pleasure dome. He strikes an almost angelic pose on the sleeve—armored, shorn, staring into the middle distance, his hand resting awkwardly on a gleaming sword. He looks as confused as Franco Nero in Camelot, a knight who isn't sure if he's slain his dragons yet, and is going to sing about it anyway.

Its title poised between desire and deficiency, Want One is recognizably a recovery record, complete with raw nerve endings, lights at the end of tunnels, and even some mock-gospel resurrections. Just as well that, in contrast to Poses' Polaroid-strewn roving reports, the imagery is nebulous; there are few instruments less suited to rehab truisms than the imperious Rufus quaver, most potent when pining or sniping. He's been forthcoming in interviews, though, regaling the Times with enough crystal meth and rough-trade misadventures to prompt an excited headline—"Rufus Wainwright Journeys to 'Gay Hell' and Back"—that cries out for its own South Park episode (or at least a Boy Meets Boy booby prize). But Want, despite visible scar tissue, is too pretty to be cautionary. Painful as the backstory gets, the work itself remains lovely and luxuriant—there's no mistaking the imprint of the incorrigible aesthete, the miserablist romantic, the Tadzio who'd rather identify with Aschenbach.

Indeed, Wainwright totalizes Thomas Mann's self-described "voluptuousness of doom"—for better and worse, he looks for voluptuousness in the most trivial of sensations. Nowhere is this more ridiculously evident than on Want One's first track, "Oh What a World," an impressionistic doodle of transit-lounge estrangement. Abetted by more-is-more producer Marius de Vries, Wainwright slathers on the orchestral and choral equivalent of wedding cake icing, or kabuki makeup—undulating chant tarted up with tuba clip-clop, tittering Gilbert and Sullivan background vocals, and a string crescendo that, upon reaching maximum tumescence, plunges headfirst into the dark-chocolate swirl of Ravel's Bolero.

After that hoot of an opener, the promised narrative duly kicks in: "I Don't Know What It Is," a suitably hazy if oddly exhilarated account of adriftness, builds from buoyant bemusement to the false, fleeting clarity of an artificial high. Sure enough, a morning-after crash awaits: "Vicious World" approximates a fetal curl, with electronic gurgle and softly insistent Fender Rhodes temple throb.

Wantis full of similarly jarring mood swings—a cyclical record many times over, all rebounding energy and recoiling paralysis. The giant cracked-porcelain centerpiece, "Go or Go Ahead," reconciles Want's two opposing modes, a crash-landing epiphany scaled as Greek tragedy, with Dionysian chorus in tow. Stirring as it is, it's still a relief when the familiar Rufus re-emerges a couple of songs later—snotty, drama-addicted, in love with himself. Drunk in flip-flops on Fifth Avenue last time out, he stages his triumphant return on a more low-rent boulevard of broken dreams: "14th Street," a redemptive homecoming parade fit for a queen, with floats and freak flags and Mom on banjo.

But the real homecoming is saved for last: Want's panorama of inchoate longing snaps into focus on "Dinner at Eight," a velvet-gloved right hook to absent dad from abandoned son. The image of Loudon leaving in the "drifting white snow" is primally specific, but this sinuous piano ballad's deceptively slender frame somehow seems to contain all the needy, competitive complications that bedevil every father-son relationship (and in particular, father-gay son relationship). Refined and precise, it also has the unadorned, uncensored quality of those letters shrinks make you write but not send (Rufus composed it a few years ago, then put it away). One word recurs, seized on and stretched like taffy each time—ac-tual-ly—a verbal talisman that lends the song a heartbreaking, for-the-record toughness. While Rufus's maternal tribute (the first album's "Beauty Mark") was a goofy romp awash in McGarrigle-parlor conviviality, "Dinner at Eight" has a crystalline bitterness worthy of the old man. But the hard-won insights are entirely the singer's own—a considered mix of rage and acceptance that can only come from years of stewing and a recognition that you've been an asshole too.

 
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