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Rufus Wainwright - The stream of sadness
on 1 April 2010
Those of you who recently heard Rufus Wainwright's excellent "Front Row" interview with John Wilson on Radio 4 will be fully up to speed with the background to this album. As "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu" was being recorded Wainwright's mother the wonderful folk singer Kate McGarrigle was dying and eventually passed away. As he states "at the time I was writing this she was really up and down. She had incredible moments of vitality matched with equally depressing times. I had to do this kind of work". Similarly he reprises some of his own personal demons not least of all his experiences and problems with drugs, his uncloseted sexuality and parental opprobrium. Out of this sadness is borne an album of tender beauty and containing some of his most mature work and more importantly his best songs. It takes him firmly away from the recent theatrics of the Judy Garland Tributes and back in the territory of the more reflective parts of "Want"
Some reviews are suggesting that this is an unflinching and sombre listen. That is over simplistic, indeed it is absorbing and beautiful in equal parts and the those who have seen the great man live in concert will have no problems whatsoever with the spare piano accompaniment and that flamboyant tenor voice full of warm vocal timbre. Indeed in many respects the album feels familiar in terms of some of the excellent covers he does live, his version of Neil Young's "Harvest" springs to mind. Its pointless reviewing every song on "All days" since there are no bad songs on the album and you would quickly run out of superlatives. As such lets start at the finish. In "Zebulon" Wainwright has recorded probably one of his greatest songs. The rich ebb of Wainwright's voice runs over a dramatically slow piano and emotions run high as soon as he opens with the words -
"My mother's in hospital, my sister's at the opera
I'm in love, but let's not talk about it
There's so much to tell you"
"Zebulon" is truly stunning and please watch him perform it on Q Music. The journey to track 12 is littered with other enormous high points. The song addressed to his sister "Martha" is a fascinating list of lyrical phone messages that ends with Rufus urging a return call over a rolling piano accompaniment. The three Shakespearean based "Sonnet" songs are all excellent but "Sonnet 20" is gentle and tender piano ballad with an aching vocal from Wainwright which is the first amongst equals. Opener "Where are you New York" has lavish cascading arpeggios combined with a fine lyric and vocal, it segues into the mournful and heart rending "So Sad With What I Have" another huge highlight. "What would ever do with a rose" is the final song I will mention which is one of the purist and most stripped down songs on the album haunted by a Sondheim style melody.
Some have complained in the past that Wainwright has used theatrics and cabaret to hide raw emotions, it is "like listening to the most depressing lounge act in the fanciest lounge in the world" is the loudest criticism. I'm not certain that many would ever agreed with that judgement but in the case of "All days are nights" it becomes superfluous. This is Rufus Wainwright's most powerfully evocative album, he sings throughout like a baroque master and the depth of his song-writing is awesome. In terms of the terrible labels we use this is not "feel good" or chart music, it is an album that challenges, provokes and stimulates. It is classical music for modern times and deserves an audience that will be bewitched by its beauty and grace.