Back in April, Rufus was reported in 'Q' as saying that with Release The Stars, the follow-up to 2004's Want Two, he was "going for the sound of cash registers". This uncharacteristically mainstream-minded approach should make even the most casual of Rufus Wainwright fans look longingly towards their shelf at the New York-born singer-songwriter's back catalogue and prepare to never again hear the musical bombast of 'Oh What A World', the lyrical cheek 'Gay Messiah', or anything as beautifully tender as 'Poses'. I will admit to being incredibly nervous myself.
Thankfully, none of us had anything to worry about. I even half-wonder whether he was joking, because at a time when fellow New Yorkers Scissor Sisters and the once interesting Snow Patrol - whose brilliant previous albums were both critical and commercial successes - now appeal to the sort of people who buy their records from Tesco, Rufus is always going to Rufus. Thank the messiah.
Release The Stars sits somewhere between Poses, with its mature songwriting, and the Want albums, with their penchant for the epic and grandiose. The perfect examples being 'Not Ready To Love', a gorgeous, etherial ballad that swoons and shimmers like the best songs off that beautiful second album, before falling seamlessly into the next track 'Slideshow', with a brass section the size of Jupiter invading the chorus. Rufus hasn't lost his sense of humour either and 'Tulsa' is proof of that; a dramatic whurlwind of a song written about Killers frontman Brandon Flowers (no, seriously) and a night spent together in a bar, complete with the biting line "and that poor girl who waited in the rain for hours to meet me (not you baby)".
Release The Stars also sees Rufus developing as a composer, tackling arrangement duties for the first time on all but the title track, which he shares with American trumpeter Steven Bernstein. An incredible achievement, since the string and horn parts on these songs are utterly brilliant. The gorgeous string ensemble on 'Nobody's Off The Hook' is a highlight, as are the Motown/Bacharach flavoured trumpets on 'Rules And Regulations'.
The DVD that accompanies this set is a rather wonderful addition, unlike a lot of companion disks that merely contain a few videos. There's a 22 minute interview in which Rufus talks about each track individually and a 16 minute live performance (for something to do with MSN, in a rather sterile, audienceless but nicely lit room) of four songs; Vibrate, The Art Teacher, Gay Messiah, Rebel Prince. The interview is cut up into 12 shorts which is a little frustraiting, despite the 'Play All' option, but Rufus is his charming self and tells some truely insightful, interesting and humorous stories that are great fun to listen to. The performances of the old songs, all solo except for the Art Teacher, offer little that hasn't already been seen on the 'All I Want' documentary DVD but are a welcome inclusion. It's a shame that there's no footage of the album being recorded; Rufus tells of live sessions with both small chamber groups and full orchestras that would be great to see, but you can't have everything!
Let's be clear about this, Release The Stars hasn't bettered Rufus' back catalogue, but it has added to it a whole new cannon of wonderful songs that any other artist would kill for. It's a brilliant achievement that will please the old fans and hopefully make a few new ones. To award it five stars feels generous, but to award it four feels stingey; this is, let us not forget, a Rufus Wainwright album and that man writes songs like no one else does, has or ever will. Whether it will make a star out of him remains to be seen. The messiah, or just another naughty boy?