Of all the work that Rufus Wainwright has released to date, the Want project has surely been his magnum opus. Essentially a double album whose two parts (entitled Want One and Want Two) were released separately, Want is a flawed masterpiece: flawed because of the often hit-and-miss quality of its songs, but a masterpiece for breadth of style and overall quality of music, songwriting and execution.
One of the most common complaints about Want as a whole is that it could be much more compact and, perhaps, effective. But I think I prefer it as it is: sprawling, imperfect, a magnificently shameless showcase of Rufus Wainwright's formidable talents, full of élan and embonpoint. Want One embodies these characteristics even better than its counterpart.
The album art of Want might be good enough to draw in even people who know nothing about Rufus (we'll call him Rufus, since his father and sister are both also famous musical Wainwrights); he drew and helped design it himself. Both covers are similar, with elaborate hand-drawn decorations surrounding a circular photo of Rufus in some spectacular getup. One features Rufus looking quite dashing and pensive as a knight in armor, the ornamentation done in blue and brown. It's a striking cover, just as ostentatious as the music within and made even more appealing by Rufus's undeniable boyish good looks.
Any doubts about Rufus's ability to make this ostentatiousness work in his favor in his music as well as his cover art should be dispelled by the opening track of One. "Oh What A World" uses the ages-old trick of starting off quiet and building gradually to an exorbitant climax (and quoting Ravel's Bolero in the process), but don't be fooled: The melody and lyric (with its typically Rufus opening line "Men reading fashion magazines / Oh what a world it seems we live in / Straight men") are simple enough that this will be the first song from Want that gets stuck in your head. And you will love it!
The next song, "I Don't Know What it Is," is not quite as smashing as "Oh What A World," but it is more radio-friendly (not that Rufus will ever get a great deal of airplay) and starts to give you an idea of just how much Rufus is capable of doing well. His pop songs, with the possible exception of the incredibly catchy "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" from Poses, are not usually among his best, but the ones on Want are all quality nonetheless; other examples are "Movies of Myself," also from Want One and "The One You Love," from Two.
"Go Or Go Ahead" is the next big highlight on One; it's absolutely the best song in all of Want and probably the best song Rufus has ever written. Its lyric is passionate but erudite, and while it starts off quietly, the music simply explodes about two minutes in; it really is an amazing moment. Rufus has this to say about it:
I'm a little nervous talking about this one. It was written a couple of years ago on a horrible, frightening drug crash. The lyrics came to me fast and furious. I was shattered, and I had to resort to mythological metaphors in order to express what I was feeling. It was a very Rimbaud moment for me. It was about facing addiction, or facing this person I'd become. It was me fighting for my life, because it had become a battle at that point. The voices in the chorus are like the Furies; that song is my "Orpheus Ascending."
It's not difficult to see how someone with musical and literary chops this big can be as full of himself as Rufus is. He's pretty much spot on, though, when he says things like "People who buy my discs are already addicted with me and, even if the label said that my album contained plutonium, they would buy it anyway."
But don't get me wrong: Want One does have some missteps on it, although no one really seems to agree on what they are. The cute but utterly trivial "Vibrate" sounds good enough but won't age well at all with references to Britney Spears and electroclash in the first verse. There's also the love-it-or-hate-it saccharine of "Natasha" and the uninspired and uninspiring 9/11 song "11:11." The bridge of "Movies of Myself," contains the laughably dubious line "I'm looking for a reason, a person, a painting, a Saturday Night Post Edition by Jesus, an old piece of bacon never eaten by Elvis." And whether or not the lounge singer sound that Rufus affects in "Harvester of Hearts" actually works seems to be a very subjective matter.
In my humble opinion, though, the sublime outweighs the ridiculous on Want One by a large margin. Further examples of this include the rock opera of "14th Street," the upbeat and exuberant "Beautiful Child" and the last song, "Dinner At Eight," a simmering but ultimately bittersweet indictment of Rufus's father.
Don't get the wrong idea. Listening to Want One, you will not often get the impression that you relate personally to Rufus's words. This is The Rufus Wainwright Show, and what he wants to do is talk about himself, often using the most elliptical lyrics and the most flamboyant music possible. But you'll never derive so much enjoyment from hearing anyone else complain about their problems as you will from Want One.
1. Oh What a World / 2. I Don't Know What it Is / 3. Vicious World / 4. Movies Of Myself / 5. Pretty Things / 6. Go or Go Ahead / 7. Vibrate / 8. 14th Street / 9. Natasha / 10. Harvester of Hearts / 11. Beautiful Child / 12. Want / 13. 11:11 / 14. Dinner at Eight