'Want Two' pulls at the heart of Rufus

BY ALEXANDRA JONES
Daily Weekend Editor
Published November 24, 2004

Rufus Wainwright is missing something. The genetically talented, operatically trained (his parents are Canadian folksingers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle) and very, very openly gay male chanteuse has released Want Two, the second installment of tracks recorded concurrently with 2003’s spectacular Want One. But Want Two, the darker and more intense of the two albums, lacks a clear voice. As a whole, the album’s tracks don’t support each other to create anything bigger than the best song, “The Art Teacher,” and only a few individual tracks stand out from the rest.

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Misunderstood. (Courtesy of Geffen)

Both albums feature Wainwright’s sublime vocals and highly developed orchestration, but they’re maddeningly different from one another: Ones ideology revolves around a sort of sophisticated New York glory, underscored by sumptuous baroque trimmings, but Two’s ideas are more scattered, moving from psych plainchant “Agnus Dei,” to soft piano ballads, “Peach Trees,” to major-keyed, Mozart-inspired technique pieces like “Little Sister.”

Listeners may have expected Two to follow One’s tonal shifts between poppy exuberance and hyperbolic sensitivity with material that’s less clearly polarized, and that’s exactly what Wainwright did. However, without these obvious extremes, Wainwright’s overarching ideas are lost in the miasma of styles and characters stuck uncomfortably together on Two.

The more Wainwright-esque tracks on Want Two, “The One You Love” and “Peach Trees” recall the great songs that appear on Want One — love songs combining piano and a backing band. But others, like “Hometown Waltz” and “Memphis Skyline,” sound like almost-there attempts at love songs, not finished pieces of music. Closing track “Old Whore’s Diet” is a cyclical, rumba-inspired duet with a vocalist only identified as “Antony.” The track, clocking in at nearly nine minutes, detracts from the album’s — and Wainwright’s — musical integrity with the near-constant repetition of “An old whore’s diet / Gets me goin’ in the morning.”

Despite the fact that Wainwright has linked the dregs of the Want sessions together so poorly, Want Two contains a few beautiful tracks that rival any of his previous work. Penultimate track “Crumb by Crumb” features a cool, in-motion narrative voice languorously singing “Suddenly you are the one / Who opens the gates to this unruly garden / ’Cause baby I got to get through / Crumb by crumb in this big black forest.” Want Two doesn’t peak with acoustic ballad “Gay Messiah” as some listeners may have anticipated, but the innuendo and metaphor behind it are both hilarious and ingenious, and its chorus — “Better pray for your sins / ’Cuz the gay messiah’s coming” — is utterly timeless.

Want Two’s finest track, “The Art Teacher,” rivals even the gorgeous “Beautiful Child,” “Dinner at 8” and “11:11” from Want One. Wainwright’s velvety-silver voice tells the story of a private school girl who has a secret crush on her art teacher over a tense, repetitive piano ostinato: “He asked us what our favorite work of art was / But never could I tell him it was him.” Occasional horn leaps between verses add a rich sadness to the story. When Wainwright sings “He told me he liked Turner / And never have I turned since then / No, never have I turned to any other man,” his voice alone eclipses the expansive orchestral production found on the more indulgent Want One. The DVD packaged with the album — a mixture of concert footage from his show at the Fillmore in San Fransisco and short episodes of Wainwright hanging out on the street and visiting his cousin’s new baby — includes a live performance of “The Art Teacher” that mesmerizes viewers when coupled with Wainwright’s image.

While the confident, sophisticated queen leading his audience down Park Avenue on Want One can make any listener feel like a diva, the guy behind Want Two is a “Wizard of Oz” figure, a man behind the curtain who isn’t giving up any secrets.

 

Album: 3 out of 5 stars

DVD: 4 out of 5 stars