Back in the days of Stephen Foster, the piano was the centerpiece of the parlor. That was the room that women ran, the room where music, like femininity, was supposed to civilize baser impulses. From the piano flowed the family values of 19th-century America. It might seem a long ways from “Old Folks at Home” to the detoxing ingenues Rufus Wainwright evokes on his new Poses, but there’s a line between the two. Wainwright isn’t just an avowed fan of Foster’s piano music; he makes genteel, piano-driven pop that would have been labeled alternative in a Civil War-era rock magazine. And like the culture of the parlor, Wainwright is desperate to have his music somehow elevate his life; somehow straighten out the mess his own impulses have made for him.
It’s not like others haven’t noticed his flamboyant life, maybe even before his recklessness was brought to his attention. The band Sloan wrote “Take Good Care of the Poor Boy” about their fellow Canadian’s self-abandon, and in 1999 his sister Martha followed “he’s Laurel, he’s Hardy/he’s the life of the party” with “photogenic at first glance/but got something missing for romance.”
He’s pretty, looks great in a leather jacket, and at the age of 28, is in no hurry to understand what’s going on in his world. On his self-titled 1998 debut, Wainwright seemed awestruck by the pleasures of the world; when he sang “Barcelona,” the operatic gush was jaw-droppingly great. He didn’t just write tunes, he choreographed them too. His lust for life was tailor-made for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, on which he appears (alas singing in French; I don’t understand French unless Lil’ Kim sings it). But on Poses he sounds dumbstruck as much as awestruck by what’s out there, the boys on the motorbikes and the assorted intoxicants that have him padding Fifth Avenue in flip-flops, old before his time. The piano was supposed to be a civilizing force, and in the household he grew up in, surrounded by strong women and the 19th-century songbook, it was. But now he’s waking up in a hotel, yearning for his rebel prince. “It’s these windows all around me/telling me to rid my dirty mind of all its preciousness,” he sings. Whatever room this is, it’s a long way from the parlor.
Wainwright worries cute. He is providentially of two minds on Poses: He looks fetchingly across a gulf at his life as a party-Hardy boy, almost as if it’s someone else’s behavior he’s clucking at. But then again, in the same song, his toffee voice alights and draws you close to the skin of experience, and you end up wondering how bad he really feels. He sure seems to be having a hell of a good time, with his cigarettes and chocolate and things that make the heart race faster still.
His lyrics do a delicate neither-this-nor-that soft-shoe; the problem is that while he’s of two minds, his producers are of four. That’s how many people worked on individual songs on Poses (not to mention singer-songwriter swami Lenny Waronker, who executive produces). Sometimes Propellerhead Alex Gifford adds an electronic beat, and there are abundant strings and vocal harmonies. What we’re left with is a whole lot of reach among songs that could use more boundaries, a singer whose voice floods you with whatever he’s feeling, and a crazy mix of arrangements and exotica that threaten to wash the feeling all away. I love the eccentric ornament in “Greek Song,” an ode to queer love, the Asian string instrument that summons up antique chinoiserie. Appropriate? Not, but the solo somehow aligns with the song’s passion for adventure, and renders it indelible.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry, and neither does Wainwright. Poses is split between music that views his life as a comedy and tragedy—but comedy gets all the best tunes. When he’s able to laugh at his debutante swan dives from grace, the songs are flat-out sharper and hookier. When he raises a moral qualm, when he tries to Really Tell Us Something—in “Shadows,” “Evil Angel,” and “In a Graveyard”—the music loses its detail, its melody, its chinoiserie. And maybe subconsciously, even Wainwright knows that his music works best when he’s not taking himself so seriously. He names his album after one of the CD’s most ponderous tunes, but it’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”—that one about vices—which starts and finishes the record.
The occasional guitar songs help too. His dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy” introduces a note of welcome self-deflation here’s hoping our wing-walker one day develops himself. And “California” is a breezy put-down of Los Angeles, inspired by a party thrown by Marilyn Manson. I’m not sure that’s the best way to see the state, though it’s a very good way to experience a blackout. He sounds utterly shocked that he’s losing his innocence, and then delights in wickedly hinting you haven’t seen anything yet. He may have left his Los Angeles home for Manhattan, but he sounds as much the Cali moralist as Don Henley here, and I mean that in a good way. “Ain’t it a shame that at the top peanut butter and jam they serve you,” he sings, “Ain’t it a shame that at the top still those soft-skin boys can bruise you.” Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. . . . All that glitters isn’t gold. These are the truths Wainwright discovers, even if they were already obvious at the time parlor music began. And even if his parlor looks more like a house of ill repute, both needed a piano player.
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