Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow the Rules Music Album Reviews

Rufus Wainwright’s first original album in eight years isn’t so much a reinvention as an opulently crafted highlight reel, a career-spanning sampler of the singer’s many styles and guises.

At 46, Rufus Wainwright is around the same age Leonard Cohen was when he wrote “Hallelujah,” the song Wainwright transmitted into a million tween bedrooms by way of a powerful device known as the Shrek soundtrack. And he’s the same age his father, Loudon Wainwright III, was when he released History, the 1992 album sometimes regarded as a late-career masterpiece. That’s not to say the younger Wainwright has crafted a masterpiece of his own (or an American Idol standby), but he knows lengthy careers can ebb and flow⁠—it’s literally in his blood⁠—and isn’t shy about comparing his own arc to big-name forebears: When he first announced his new album, Unfollow the Rules, back in February, he described it as an attempt to “emulate the greats of yore whose second acts produced their finest work,” citing Cohen’s The Future and Paul Simon’s Graceland. Unfollow the Rules, we were to understand, is a long-awaited new beginning.
But unlike The Future, which absorbed icy synthesizers into Cohen’s apocalyptic soothsaying, or Graceland, which drew from South African styles like township jive, Unfollow the Rules isn’t the sort of album that’s interested in reckoning with the contemporary pop landscape. Maybe that will come as a relief to Wainwright’s fans, who’ve waited nearly a decade since his last proper pop album, 2012’s Mark Ronson-assisted Out of the Game, and who have always been drawn to the singer’s old-soul aesthetic. Swapping Ronson for veteran producer Mitchell Froom, Unfollow the Rules isn’t so much a reinvention as an opulently crafted highlight reel, a career-spanning sampler of Wainwright’s styles and guises.

Nearly every corner of Wainwright’s discography⁠, save for the operas⁠, is here and accounted for: the swooning piano -pop of 2001’s career-best Poses (“Romantical Man”), the outlandishly lush orchestration of Want Two and Release the Stars (“Unfollow the Rules,” “Early Morning Madness”), the solo meandering of All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (“My Little You”). He even finds time to revisit the ’70s AOR sparkle of Out of the Game on “Damsel in Distress,” a Joni Mitchell tribute ornamented with Hunky Dory handclaps.

If these reference points seem a little retro, consider that they’re several hundred years more current than the Shakespeare sonnets that occupied Wainwright’s last release. Besides, the singer has spent the last eight years settling into married life, raising a young daughter, and writing an opera about an embattled Roman emperor—not jockeying for relevance or mugging with Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys. That sense of domestic, middle-age contentedness fills the album, from the striding English folk of “Peaceful Afternoon,” in which Wainwright toasts to a happy marriage and hopes his husband’s face is the last he sees before he dies, to the lullaby-esque “My Little You,” in which he regales his daughter with embarrassing dad stories.

When Wainwright does veer from his comfort zone, flirting with sci-fi synths and celestial flourishes, the results range from jumbled (“This One’s for the Ladies [That Lunge]”) to downright grating (“Hatred”). Mostly, though, his songwriting is as sharp and cheeky as ever. “You Ain’t Big” satirizes provincial fame (and packs a decent punchline), while “Alone Time” subverts its plea for solitude (“I need a little alone time / A little dream time”) with harmonies so luxuriant that Wainwright sounds like he’s accompanied by a choir of himself. (Had it been written in 2020, it could be a song about the trials of quarantining with a toddler.)

The album’s sound is sleek and full of grand, sweeping climaxes that occasionally oversell the songwriting. But if Unfollow the Rules is sometimes in want of a unifying idea or theme, Wainwright’s dreamy voice provides a throughline. With its immaculate harmonies and wry humor, “Trouble in Paradise”—a sardonic take on the fashion industry—sounds so much like Queen that the Bohemian Rhapsody producers probably could have slotted it in the film without Bryan Singer noticing. Numerous other songs erupt in layered, multipart harmonies. Wainwright’s tenor voice has matured and deepened—listen to the nasal-voiced 24-year-old heard on 1998’s “Foolish Love,” and then hear present-day Wainwright deliver the wonderful, operatic climax of “Unfollow the Rules.” Suffice it to say, those are not notes an aging Leonard Cohen could have reached.
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Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow the Rules Music Album Reviews Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow the Rules Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, July 17, 2020 Rating:

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