Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pop: Release the Stars

To prove myself an equal opportunity music blogger, though I don't lay claim on that title, I think I'll make a few comments on Rufus Wainwright's new CD, Release the Stars. I'll put it like this, I bought this CD on the "oblique recommendation" of a good friend. My taste in serious pop music is a little more severe and Prussian (watch for that joke to come back) than Mr. Wainwright's. Rick Rubin's work with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, while not production-free is considerably less obtrusive than most that of most of his colleagues. Still, I've given the record five or six complete spins.

Wainwright is, at times, as literary and allusive as - say - Warren Zevon or Fagen and Becker. Unless I miss my guess, his "Sanssouci" is referencing none other than Der alte Fritz. Not exactly the sort of subject matter, about Friedrich der Große or not, that is going to find its way on to the next Justin Timberlake record. Whether or not it was his intention, and I'm going to show a preponderance of evidence that it likely was, Release the Stars is about as operatic a pop album as you could want.

It seems that Mr. Wainwright is the Richard Wagner of serious pop music (I'm not the originator of that thought). This new record isn't quite Der Ring des Nibelungen or Parsifal. However, it is still bigger in Konzept than most of the other records on the market. I bought the last Justin Timberlake album, which received so much praise on the interweb. It was supposed to be the triumph of producer Timbaland's art. That it might have been, but I found the production a little too in-your-face. No, that record was for the producer, not the artist. Release the Stars has a lot of production, but it seems as though it was intended to complement the vocal line. As to the songs, which I promise to get to and we'll see below, I find them interesting and engaging. They tell stories, to a greater or lesser extent, and on that level, they work.

As to why I think he's name-checking die alte Fritz, I suggest that you look up the life of der Große and some of his, shall we decorously say, interests. Also, this is the guy who wrote a song roughly about the Maysles' fabulous (take that one for what it's worth) film, Grey Gardens, and then proceeded to reference Mann's Der Tod in Venedig. That's doubly literary. That's why I say that he is the most elusive and allusive rocker since Warren Zevon. I mean, Zevon wins - having written a song about State Department diplomat Philip Habib.

This is a solid record, and probably a throwback to the good old days of singer-songwriters: worth the spin. I don't know if I'll like it in twenty years, not - at least - in the same way that I'll probably like The Envoy or Unchained, but it's worth it for the moment. That isn't an insult, since Mr. Wainwright's songs seem to be written in the moment for a specific moment.