Review by: Sheldon Ang
Rolling Stones hailed Rufus Wainwright as the Best New Artist of 1998. Since then, the New York-born, Montreal raised debonair has collaborated with some of the biggest names such as Elton John, Billy Joel, Robbie Williams and Joni Mitchell, earning the accolade as one of the most prodigious vocalists, singer-songwriters and composers of his generation.
Unfollow the Rules marks the return of Wainwright after several years in exile from mainstream music from a period of opera and classical embellishments. The artist’s pedigree shines in his ninth studio album, personifying a range of multi layered vocals in an album of multitudes, masquerading between low range cabaret and operatic stratosphere, blending tenor and high falsetto in a concoction of obsession, as if maniacally entwining two extremes into a centrepiece. The eclectic artist flirts with a multitude of genres, melodious weaving through different channels of musical melody and harmonies, with twist and shunning predictability.
“Songwriting became a real need…I wrote songs in order to stay alive artistically and saw the tricks I’d learnt from taking off on these major theatrical tangents seeping into the songs. It was a fortunate trade-off I hadn’t foreseen,” says Wainwright of his opera Hadrian.
“There are three sides to every person” – Act I is a definitive statement of what Wainwright is “trying to achieve – a mix of present and past, lessons learnt, finally dealing with what’s been buried”. Act II is about relinquishing new pastures. The third dwells into the twilight side of his life’s journey, inviting his audience into a world of extremes.
The album begins with Trouble in Paradise, an oxymoron adage underlining the world of Anne Wintour, the Editor in Chief for Vogue. There’s always trouble in paradise. “But I also find the whole fashion universe to be troubling and somewhat scary,” Wainwright explains. Damsel in Distress takes up a notch in tempo with a guitar acoustic in a homage to singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell.
The title track Unfollow the Rules strips to an organic offering, a masterpiece festering from the exploration of a low range cabaret, as Wainwright narrates over the piano. Syllable for syllable we hold onto his words for the first half, maturing in pace into the second half. The track was commissioned for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Here and Now, but it’s also about the Wainwright’s friend who was going through therapy. But I’m no Hercules, And this is Herculean, Tomorrow I will just be feeling the pain resonates the agony of her friend.
The final chorus unexpectedly takes flight to new heights, Don’t give me what I want, Just give me what I’m needing placing me on a high falsetto, pushing to the edge of Wainwright’s upper range – perhaps a deliberate attempt to ooze discomfort, fitting to the message of this song. Afterall, if a man is in discomfort, it should show.
Peaceful Afternoon is dedicated to Wainwright’s husband, a well-deserved devotion to kick off Act II, underlining John Denver’esq personification from the introduction, “It comes to thirteen years babe”, a distant memory from his operatic style. This track is congruous in a Tennessee Waltz as it would be in wedding waltz. This One’s For The Ladies is a dedication to this fan base of middle age women, another track containing a platitude of multilayered vocals.
Act III dwells in darkness with My Little You, taking Wainwright to the piano on a poignant journey, Mama wading through the river Styx with all the answers, “The River Styx refers to his daughter’s mother complication in the process of getting pregnant”. Wainwright’s own mother was sick at that time and passed on, as the singer explains the life and death tribulation in two minutes of life’s inevitable epilogue, as the mood sedation ends unexpectedly.
Early Morning Madness is a journey of addiction, a tribulation between ecstasy and suffering, the purgatory of abuse, narrated unequivocally as his vocal soars again to the stratosphere at Early morning madness, early morning sadness, I don’t have the senti-sentiment, senti-sentiment, culminating onto a sonic charge, bringing the kind epic ending like in the Night of White Satin.
Alone Time is the final track of the album, an incessant need the demarcates relationship and physical solitude, But don’t worry I’ll be back baby, To get you…perhaps it is a message to the world that no matter the musical direction takes, Wainwright will always be back.