Rufus Wainwright's music has a casual twang that's deceptive. In Poses, his second album, this seemingly careless drawl reveals itself as the foundation of a complicated artifice. Before his first, self-titled album was released in 1998, Wainwright was already a cult figure, though many of his fans preferred the extemporized passion of his live sets, as circulated in pirated recordings, to the smoother renditions of the official release. Those listeners may hate Poses, which is as meticulously produced as any pop-rock CD I've heard this year. But the sleeker Wainwright's songs become, the more raw the emotions underlying them seem. In that sense he's a little like a camp singer-songwriter boy-Madonna.
This was true of his first album, too, and a distinctive sloppiness, or apparent randomness, is built in to Wainwright's performance style. He loves sudden lilts and lithe dips and lissome leaps of the voice, and he pulls them off for their own sake, with a quality of nonchalant bravado. Nobody would ever doubt that he can sing, but he tries unexpected shifts of register few trained singers would attempt. When they come off they're sublime, and when they don't they're even better--testament to a lazy virtuosity, with a passive-aggressive sexiness that's both boyish and sweetly androgynous. You can tell he's a great piano player, too, but he couldn't care less. He could be Gershwin with a voice, and an attitude; like Gershwin, he loves enjambments--loose, edgy lines that seem about to close just before they spill over into the next line, with a kind of willowy, melancholy exuberance.
The songs are about fairly standard song stuff: loving without being loved back, wanting to be alone without being lonely. Their tone is buoyant sadness or sad buoyancy. In the song that opens and closes the record he sings of his cravings (pronounced "cruh-viiiings") in a brash, dum-de-dum swing: "Cig-a-rettes and choc-o-late miiillllk..." The way he plays with the words speaks both his solitude--for he only has words to play with--and his wish to communicate in some new way; part nonsense, part rhyme. All these songs have a frowsy elegance; Rufus is never going to sing about dead skunks in the middle of roads, like his folk-hipster dad, Loudon Wainwright III. But he performs a cover of his father's great song "One Man Guy," and with his lazily exacting cadences, he gives it a new meaning. Magically, but casually, it turns into a song about fathers, and about being gay. Wainwright's still one of the few really gay singers with semi-mainstream aspirations. Naturally, therefore, the rap is that he's slight. But what his music's really about is the unbearable lightness of singing.