Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nothing So Bright, Nothing So Smooth


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album play-through: Rufus Wainwright. I find I can't be remotely objective about this record; as much as any piece of music, this 1998 collection upended/affirmed my entire musical aesthetic and in doing so changed my life to an extent. Its bold centerstaging of voice and piano knocked me over--harder than, say, Ben Folds had, partly because Rufus wasn't trying to make the piano rock at all and also because Rufus' ragtime/showtune/classical harmonies were so much closer to the soundtrack in my head. This record was directly responsible for a burst of unapologetically ambitious (and unapologetically retro) piano songwriting on my part; for the introduction of a piano into my band at the time, Millhouse; and, I'd have to say, for its eventual breakup. It wasn't their fault; what band could sound like the ragtime/circus/chamber/pop orchestra Jon Brion and Van Dyke Parks conjured for these songs? My efforts as a composer and songwriter since (I was never even close to Rufus as a singer) have largely been aimed at a sound as rich and rangy, if not precisely the same, as the one I heard on this record. (It's why I opened not one but both of my solo records with this song, for instance.)

Listening to it again after all these years, I'm stirred and inspired all over again by its irresistible sweep and intimacy, its naked heart and sad, coy self-deprecation. But what's most striking, again, is Rufus' mastery of time--he stops it, speeds it up, bends it, slows it to a crawl, drags single vocal notes over measures. As a result, some of the album's most arresting songs are like waking dreams, but dreams that never sag or drag, in part because they have real compositional shape but also because Brion's swirling but precise arrangements give them almost heartbreaking specificity--there are pointy marimba and horn signposts along the piano-brick road, a pulse beneath all the consumptive-deathbed drama. I'll admit that Rufus has written songs as good as these since ("Poses" may be his best single song ever), but nothing in my experience, let alone the rest of his catalog, touches the immersive quality of this amazing initial throwdown.


Comments:
Chris Coffman fantastic
Laura Burgos YES RUFUS WAINWRIGHT. A beautifully written post about a gorgeous album.
Gary Kout I got to know him with Want One. Inspires me to this day.
Laurie Woolery I love your writings on music - you've become MY Rolling Stone mag

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