The first thing that strikes you about ‘Unfollow The Rules’, Rufus Wainwright’s first ‘pop’ album in eight years, is how remarkably grown up, how responsible and how frankly adult Rufus sounds. If that feels like a peculiar thing to say about a person in their mid-forties, it needs to be seen in the context of a career where, for a long time, his songs seemed to exist in a perpetual state of free-spiritedness, Rufus in the self-cast role as the musical wastrel singing about casual relationships, life’s sundry temptations and a general sense of poetic debauchery.
Not so with ‘Unfollow The Rules’. Here you will find Rufus delivering a heartfelt love song to his husband Jörn Weisbrodt, ‘Peaceful Afternoon’, a poignant paean that celebrates thirteen years together, as well as an admission that maybe our beloved Rufus can be a bit, shall we say, hard to live with. There’s also a swerve into deft, characteristic humour that highlights the various concerns and quotidian mundane domesticities of life that we all face – “sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean” – a lyric that the departed Leonard Cohen would have surely approved of.
On ‘Damsel In Distress’ and ‘Romantical Man’, you also hear Rufus getting nostalgic about London, a city that he spent extended periods of time in during his teenage years because of his father’s touring schedule. He also sings fervently about the Laurel Canyon environment that he calls home today, but which was also a frequent destination for his parents when they were seen as part of the extended Californian music scene during the 1970s. Sentimentality has never been an issue for Rufus, but rarely have his songs reflected so cathartically on his own life.
The album’s title track is a case in point. This sees Rufus gazing back over the sundry errors of judgment of his youthful bravado, coming to the realisation that he is no superhuman Hercules. This is the embodiment of the Rufus Wainwright that has a husband and a daughter and a puppy. A plaintive, stirring plea to refuse him what he wants and only provide what he needs, the song acts as a direct assault on the outlook on life he documented so vividly on the ‘Want’ albums. The song is a vehicle for his effortlessly towering voice, taking on a spinetingling profundity and emotiveness reminiscent of The Righteous Brothers (both of them; together; at once!), that distinctive voice augmented by string lush arrangements courtesy of producer Mitchell Froom.
Froom takes on a role that Van Dyke Parks and Marius de Vries once assumed in the early part of Rufus’s career, giving these songs the requisite grandiosity and depth to match a voice that simply overwhelms anything less. In Froom’s expert hands, ‘Unfollow The Rules’ feels like a gentle stroll through the various stages of Rufus’s career; far from creating the impression of Rufus covering his own back catalogue, the effect is like a timely reminder of everything that’s wonderful about Wainwright.
Words: Mat Smith
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