Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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RUFUS WAINWRIGHT
Rufus Wainwright
DreamWorks

Anyone who appreciates how tartly and waggishly Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III sliced through the sappy lyricism of '70s singer-songwriterdom may be disheartened by their son Rufus's shows of feeling. From an heir apparent whose word-of-mouth exceeds Sean Ono Lennon's, you expect more than the New Sensitivity of Ron Sexsmith and Richard Buckner. So rest assured that, pretty soon, more is what you get. Rufus Wainwright isn't fully formed yet--not close. But his talent is huge, and so original that trendmongers who make it their business to announce a pop revolution every fiscal quarter are unlikely to understand it. Where's the lounge reaction now that we have somebody who knows how to take its values seriously? The nice thing about Wainwright's lyricism is that he's definitely no ironist--on the contrary, he's in love with beauty.

Wainwright's originality is bound up in a sense of tradition far removed from the rock arena. His mother, who raised him in Montreal, has always been a parlor folkie, her point of reference family musicales rather than jooks or hootenannies, and Rufus's instrument is the piano. He can barely strum a guitar, but his keyboard lines are Gershwinesque--Tori Amos should be so florid. The long, tailing phrases of his high, slightly nasal baritone are even less rocklike; for precedents I'd root around in musical comedy or French chanson, maybe Al Jolson, although the singer he most recalls is the weedier and weirder Van Dyke Parks, who is also his sometime arranger.

What makes all this worth getting used to is melody. Wainwright isn't a tunesmith, he's a melodist--his songs rarely snap shut on a sure-shot refrain. Yet goosed along by his piano and Parks's orchestral Americana, you'll follow most of them with amazed pleasure, and wake up humming one you barely noticed. How much you'll recall of the words, though, is another question. Live, Wainwright is a stage-wise laff riot, but the earned romanticism of that baritone is rarely counteracted by the lyrics it intones. While his biggest fans go gaga for the likes of the AIDS allegory "Barcelona" and "Baby," a gentle dirge for a junkie lover, rock and rollers could live happily without them if Wainwright never augmented the eloquence they establish with energy or edge. Fortunately, the sharpness that emerges when he writes about his prep school or River Phoenix doesn't prevent him from eulogizing each with affection and respect. And it says everything that of all the love songs on this young man's debut, the funniest and warmest and most cutting is for his mom. She has a lot to be proud of.

Spin, July 1998