The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

For such an apparently wide open record the question has to be: what is Rufus Wainwright hiding from? I’ve lived with Release The Stars for about a month now and am still no closer to finding the answer. But the songs’ endlessly ecstatic orchestral climaxes suggest a happiness which doesn’t actually exist within their singer. He has already said that the album documents his turbulent love life over the last couple of years, and maybe it’s when he’s more settled that he’s free to deliver his best work.

This doesn’t mean that Release The Stars is stripped of any merit. Yet one has to wonder about how far he has travelled in a song like “Do I Disappoint You?” wherein he tosses himself like a human duvet during surf’s up, confounding his temporary Other’s expectations of what he is supposed to be, the conflict delineated by sister Martha’s sudden eruptions on key words like “fire,” “water” and “chaos”; despite the grand Richard Strauss-quoting finale, Rufus still seems stuck in the synth bass growl and circulatory drone which introduce the song, even though he travels through raga, saloon bar piano, Stravinsky and psychedelia to reach the end.

Of course I don’t mind Rufus pumping up his music with elegiac richness – in this deflated age of “approachable” musicians who are “just like us” (a complete misunderstanding of punk, since “we” could never have hoped to be John Lydon or even Jimmy Pursey), someone has to “overdo” the sauce – but when doing so symbolises an effort at purposeful detachment from staring life in the face then questions must be asked. The carotid bruit of a rocker which is “Between My Legs” (as in “I’ll shed a tear…”) muses over a dreamed long-distance reunion with apparent joyfulness – Richard Thompson’s guitar, as ever, patrolling and embracing the song’s surface – but then, at the line “underneath the town towards the sea,” the beat cuts out and dissolves momentarily, then a banjo begins to pluck and Sian Phillips, of all people, starts hamming the song’s final stanza for all she’s worth (a touch which must without doubt have stemmed from the album’s executive producer Neil Tennant) and probably doing her best to avoid thinking about Peter O’Toole in the process.

The best of these superficially brash songs is “Slideshow” where you almost forget about Rufus’ umming and ahhing (“Because I paid a lot of money to get you over here you know”) and start listening to what Richard Thompson is doing; musically he is definitely the album’s man of the match, as he abruptly breaks the balladic mourning with some Derek Bailey scraping to allow the entrance of Steven Bernstein’s horn section. The rest of the track seesaws between bold brass proclamations and Thompson’s now-can’t-we-be-reasonable-lads controlled playing. Eventually Thompson wins, as Rufus overcomes himself to take the song back down to its final quietude with his “Do I love you? (pause) “Yes I do,” sotto voce over Don Levine’s querulous trombone. The title track, too, is an artful exercise; even if it’s merely Rufus moaning about The Media System, its soundtrack is a brilliant history of pop in reverse, starting with sixties Brill Building organ and staccato guitar, joined by Stax horns, but then moving into Stan Kenton stabs of brashness until we finally achieve a Busby Berkeley ending with full orchestra and chorus. At his most seemingly lighthearted, Rufus is never short of ideas; the hilarious, Randy Newman-esque bitching of “Tulsa” is echoed by a continuously mocking string section commentary, while “Rules And Regulations” drives along, and sometimes springs up unexpectedly (“Not to mention the GODS!!”) with Mariachi trumpets, another trombone obbligato, a recorder playing the main melody line and a wobbly 1972 synth.

Yet it’s where he slows down that Release The Stars finally releases something resembling true emotion. He may conclude the McCartney-ish “Nobody’s Off The Hook” with an offhand mutter of “oh boy!” (and thereby segueing into Joan Wasser’s “Oh my God!” to introduce “Between My Legs”) but the initially accusatory nature of the song, with its harmonically ambiguous strings (at the phrase “little boy blue”) slowly settles into something approaching true compassion; note Wainwright’s infinite regret on the line “and you’ll believe it.” “Sanssouci”, too, is on its surface an agreeable bubblegum tango which Engelbert might have sung, but there are those ghostly backing vocal breaths on the phrase “the stables there,” the slight discordancy in guitar lines at “elegies in general” – and as Wainwright enters this presumed palace, hoping to meet his long-lost love, the music gradually vapourises and dissolves around him as he realises that the place is utterly empty, and most likely ruined. Similarly, “Tiergarten” is a lovely, marimba-led melody which disguises its central metaphor of “getting to the other side of town” – in other words, walk with me through the pain and rain; the sudden minor shift on “I have suffered shipwreck” leading to the climactic, onomatopoeic harp of “Even if it’s raining,” but at the end, again the dream becomes dissolute puddles of unfulfilled hope.

That leaves the three songs which concern themselves, openly or allegorically, with the state of America, and these are the record’s truest achievements. The most open of these is “Going To A Town” in which Rufus bitterly surveys the ruination of his land: “I’m so tired of America,” “You took advantage of a world that loved you well,” “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down” – from the opening cymbal sigh to the steady, stolid procession of the rhythm track, into which intermittently burst call and response backing vocals, strings and Thompson’s lead guitar, as though watching and cheering (or mourning) from the sidelines, to Wainwright’s never closer vocal resemblance to Thom Yorke, the song requires no overstatement or embellishment.

Then there are the lovesick/sick of love songs – “Not Ready To Love” is (so he says) about a would-be old flame but its slow, aching hurt (Thompson’s diving weep behind the line “I’m not ready to surrender,” mother Kate McGarrigle’s stately, unhurried piano, Tennant his own ghost on distant backing vocals, the calmest and most restrained string arrangement on the album) all lead to the notion of the song being sung by America in the first person – “I’m not ready for peace/I’m giving up the dove to the beast” – and then, in direct response to the accusations levelled in “Going To A Town,” Rufus ends, in quiet, poignant bewilderment, with “I’m not ready to love/Until I’m ready to love you/The way you should be loved.” It could almost be used for Bush’s abdication speech. The song is enormously moving.

Finally there is “Leaving For Paris No 2,” which addresses a second person which might as well be Burton Cummings’ American Woman; “I pray you won’t follow/Through the crooked streets behind me,” “Just you try to take care of yourself” being his semi-friendly warning as Jeff Hill’s multitracked string basses undulate like the waves of the impending English Channel. Here he is nakedly himself, and here is where he is strongest. I doubt whether Release The Stars will be as regularly revisited as Want Two, which now seems to me more than ever his masterpiece thus far, a perfect balance of directness and cloaking, or revelatory, humour…but for the moments when he drops the shield and allows himself to breathe, and maybe to cry, I’m far from done with it yet.

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