In the hands of any other singer-songwriter, the line "My phone's on vibrate for you" would be ludicrous, laughable sap. But Rufus Wainwright is different. With those seven simple syllables scored over marching pizzicato strings and a plodding bassline, the uncannily suave Wainwright seduces. He takes the words with an unnerving anxiety, forgetting to breathe as he lets them drip into measures where they don't quite belong.
And he doesn't leave that line alone, either. He emphasizes it through sonorous repetition, handling it exactly three times before demanding in his signature warble cut of equal parts pain and beauty, "But still I never ever feel from you." Then, out of nowhere, he staples the line to the audience's collective heart with a final refrain, holding two notes for ten seconds each as a slightly dissonant, almost mocking chorus of violins and voices rises to meet his wail. He drifts out of it slowly, barely managing to moan a parting "for you" as the bass snaps to a halt.
So it goes for Want One. As if on purpose, Wainwright consistently nails things that shouldn't work, turning alternately despondent and soaring poetry into powerful odes to love, introspection and aging. He manages to forge a romantic aesthetic of flowers, lace and stars to a hip-hop hodgepodge of witty commentary on pop culture--from "vanity fairgrounds" and "A Saturday Evening Post Edition by Jesus" to Britney Spears and John Lithgow.
Want--originally a two-disc set halved by a record company afraid of Wainwright's ambition in light of a doldrums-prone industry--is a powerful listen. In 14 billowing compositions centered on simple progressions for the acoustic guitar recorded in an entirely baroque atmosphere, Wainwright offers a fine mess of poetry and soundscapes. The programming of producer Marcus deVries falls precisely into place alongside a full orchestra, multiple pianos, harps, and the occasional banjo courtesy of Wainwright's mother, Kate McGarrigle.
With his first two efforts, Rufus Wainwright knew it was dangerous to grow up. But with this--his third and best offering to date--he knows it hurts. It's just that he's content to go down settling for love. And, here at least, the sound of settling is its own masterpiece.