Rufus Wainwright is 38 going on 60.
His new album Out Of The Game starts with an older man’s jokey lament about his wilder days and ends with bagpipes and a solemn hymn that could serenade a funeral.
In between are a number of songs that track at a leisurely pace as Wainwright lyrically surveys how his life has changed, or offers wistful thoughts of the future. ”Long ago when I was young and innocent, they brought me here,” he tells a younger version of himself on ”Welcome To The Ball.” ”Baby I love you, and I do not want to lose you,” he sings to his fiancé, Jorn Weisbrodt, on the banjo- and tabla-driven ballad ”Respectable Dive.” To his young daughter Viva, birthed by Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, Wainwright sings of hope that she grows up to enjoy her dads’ antics while on vacation in ”Montauk.”
Oh sure, Wainwright has long sounded older than his years, a reflection perhaps of being the son of a folk legend, Loudon Wainwright III. He burned out partying too hard too early and grew up fast in the spotlight. Still, Wainwright suggested Out Of The Game, on which he teamed up with celebrated pop producer Mark Ronson, would be different. ”We’ve been in [the studio] for three days, and I already look 20 years younger,” Wainwright told Rolling Stone a year ago. He also said the material was shaping up to be more ”danceable” than his previous output.
In the end, Out Of The Game is steeped in the stoner ’70s, channeling the blander repertoire of Steely Dan or the softer side of Elton John. And really only the organ-tipped ”Bitter Tears,” with its slightly cheesy drum programming, clips along at a truly danceable pace.
It couldn’t have helped that Wainwright took this one nice and easy. ”The band was playing live, with Rufus singing on a couch in the control room,” Mark Ronson says in the album’s press materials. After the hard work of creating an original opera – not to mention other dramatic personal developments – Wainwright must have been a bit exhausted. ”I was ready to deliver the goods to Mark and have him take over,” Wainwright concedes in press notes.
Certainly, as a package the tunes on Out Of The Game are poppier and more accessible than Wainwright’s previous six studio sets. Ronson has helped refine Wainwright’s sound. He doesn’t make the songs simpler, exactly – there are still some complicated chord structures and interesting twists to enjoy – but they are generally shorter, pithier, less dramatic.
”Welcome To The Ball,” for example, is a jaunty, trumpet-sounding psychedelic pop wonder that would tickle the fancy of any Beatles fan. And ”Montauk” features ravishing piano trills and minor-key cascading chords. In short, the chamber-pop song is a work of art. There’s also ”Candles,” an ode to Wainwright’s folk-singer mother Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. It’s a sweet processional that ends in a minute-long coda of nothing but bagpipes, a brilliant album-closing touch.
As good as Out Of The Game is – and honestly, I don’t mean to suggest it’s not good – you can’t help but imagine how great it might have been, or at least how great the follow-up might be, now that Wainwright and Ronson have gotten the hang of working together, and gotten leisurely ’70s soul out of their system. Maybe next time they could find more charm, even edge, channeling the trippy ’60s. It’s what Ronson, after all, has essentially made his stock in trade as a Grammy-winning producer, most notably with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
But Back to Black 2 – or even Wainwright on Winehouse, in the manner of Wainwright’s 2007 re-creation of a Judy Garland concert – will have to wait for another day.