In a season of slumping album sales, Rufus Wainwright and Elvis
Costello have bravely bucked simple commercial sense. Both chose to
release piano-based and fully orchestra-backed chamber pop to the
masses used to subsisting on Hilary Duff sugar rushes. It’s
downright scandalous to hear strings this full and lush swelling
behind a well-crafted ballad these days, but talented artists like
these pull it off without so much as a smirk.
Wainwright offers up the theatric but heartfelt Want One,
while Costello delivers the sophisticated and somber North.
Although separated by a generation (this is Wainwright’s third
album and Costello’s 20th), the two albums are united not just by
concurrent release dates and bittersweet vocal melodies but also by
a deep personal investment from each songwriter. It’s that
“all-too-human” that edge keeps these records from drowning in the
obvious excesses and baggage of orchestral arrangements in pop.
Wainwright uses Want to chronicle his bottoming out on
drugs and booze after years of the party-boy life, his subsequent
climb back up to sobriety, turning 30 and his perpetual search for
Mr. Right. His usual flair with mixing Tin Pan Alley pop, folk and
opera with Leonard Cohen-esque reflection is on full display here.
Want also wisely undercuts the serious subject matter with
plenty of wit and beautifully rich multi-tracked background
Though no single track seems to leap out like “April Fools” or
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” did on Wainwright’s first and
second albums, the epic build of Ravel’s “Bolero” beneath opener
“Oh What a World” and poignant title refrain of “Go or Go Ahead”
follow their own logic of catchiness, making you crave this album’s
promised springtime sequel Want Two even more.
Yet perhaps the most enduring song here is “Dinner at Eight,”
which captures an angry falling out between Rufus and his
folk-singer father, Louden Wainwright III. The heartbreak and
complexity encapsulated here alone warrants picking up the
Costello also seemed to have his dear old dad in mind when he
composed the slow, jazzy torch songs on North. His father
Ross was a noted British bandleader/singer and Elvis seems more
than a little intent on proving he’s up to snuff in the vocals
department. Focusing less on lyrics, and leaving most of the ivory
tinkling to Attractions cohort Steve Nieve, Costello does an
admirable job improving his status as a singer from the
pub-shouting days of This Year’s Model.
Obviously, the man who wrote the immortal “Shipbuilding” knows a
thing or two about ballads, but the introspection into the recent
demise of Costello’s marriage hangs as a cloud over North.
Still, despite the slow-burning gloom, the album still seems like a
must listen to Costello fanatics.
Want One, DreamWorks: 4 stars
North, Deutsche: 3 1/2 stars