Rufus Wainwright's Want Two, contrary to what might be expected from the second of a pair of related albums (I am thinking specifically of Radiohead's Amnesiac here), arguably has a more consistent mood than its predecessor Want One. It's a darker mood, to be sure: the pop song, "The One You Love," is in a minor key and there are a few very down-tempo songs, "This Love Affair," "Memphis Skyline," and "Waiting For A Dream." It's sort of a weirder mood too, as exemplified by some of the more upbeat songs like "Little Sister," "Gay Messiah," and "Old Whore's Diet." Not to mention the cover art: whereas Want One featured Rufus decked out in a suit of armor, Two has him playing the part of The Lady Of Shalott surrounded by intricate patterns in pink and burgundy. Rufus has said that this is partly because he thinks Want Two has more of a feminine feel to it, but he's also said "It could be argued that the main reason I wanted to make Want Two was just so that I could dress up as a woman on the cover."

So Rufus's being in drag on the cover might be the first thing that strikes you about Want Two. But when you start playing the music, the darker mood will probably not be what grabs your attention. That will probably be something more like: what the hell is with that first song?

"Agnus Dei," the opener of Two, starts with a creaking, scratching sound which has led many to believe erroneously that their copy of the CD was defective. It's produced by a cimbalom, the national instrument of Hungary. The lyric, "Agnus dei / Qui tollis peccata mundi / Dona nobis pacem," is a truncated version of a prayer said at Catholic mass. The music sounds distinctly Middle Eastern. And yet -- once again one must be forced to marvel at the breadth of Rufus's talent -- it all works; in fact, it's quite beautiful. It takes some getting used to, but, ultimately, not much more so than any other song from Want.

As in Want One, the second song on Two is a pop song, sorely needed here for the sake of recovery from the initial unapproachability of "Agnus Dei." And as in Want One, it's well done but by no means the highlight of the album.

That song, the song from Two that pretty much everyone seems to agree on, is "The Art Teacher." It's not nearly as epic in scope as "Go or Go Ahead," the show-stopper from Want One -- or, for that matter, as most of the rest of Want -- but the piano is harmonically interesting but still compelling, the story simple but well told, and the lyric direct but clever. And it's very difficult not to like a song that uses the phrase "uniformish pantsuit sorta thing."

That "The Art Teacher" is so unassuming -- uncommon for Rufus Wainwright, particularly in the Want project -- means it doesn't overshadow some other very good songs on Want Two. Among them are the lovely pastoral "Peach Trees" and the somber "This Love Affair" and "Waiting for a Dream." You may disagree with this assessment; opinions as to what is good on Want Two and what is crap seem to be wildly diverse. "Little Sister," in particular, is a love-it-or-hate-it song due to its flowery orchestration, and some think the Jeff Buckley eulogy "Memphis Skyline" is sweet and touching while others find it rather boring. But at the opposite end of the spectrum from "The Art Teacher," everyone is leery of the admittedly sassy but completely self-indulgent nine minute wank-fest of "Old Whore's Diet," which mercifully is the last song on Two.

One thing that bears mentioning is the rather explicitly political turn that Rufus takes in a few songs. "Waiting for a Dream" mentions "an ogre in the Oval Office," "Agnus Dei" juxtaposes Christian lyrics with Middle Eastern music to present a plea for peace, and "Gay Messiah" juxtaposes Christian imagery with something else entirely and gets explicit in ways other than political ones. Curiously, in spite of the very provocative lyric of the latter (which earned Want Two the parental advisory label that sticks out like a sore thumb on the cover), it seems to be one of the most musically inoffensive songs of the whole Want project.

Fortunately, Want Two has just a jab here and there rather than a nonstop barrage of politics. Rufus branches out more with his subject matter here than he has, perhaps, on any previous album, but he's still primarily singing about himself. But for God's sake, listen to the man. He's good enough to get away with singing about whatever the hell he wants to.

P.S. Want Two comes with a full-length concert DVD entitled "Rufus Wainwright Live at the Fillmore." His performance at the venue in San Francisco is cut with footage of his walking around the city and extemporizing comically on subjects most of which are hopelessly stereotypically gay. Favorite moments of mine include his discomfited response to a fan's shout from a car window and his interactions with a family member's new baby. As far as the concert goes? It is impossible to conceive of any word other than "fabulous" being used to describe the performance of "Oh What A World" on this DVD.

Track List

1. Agnus Dei / 2. The One You Love / 3. Peach Trees / 4. Little Sister / 5. The Art Teacher / 6. Hometown Waltz / 7. This Love Affair / 8. Gay Messiah / 9. Memphis Skyline / 10. Waiting For A Dream / 11. Crumb By Crumb / 12. Old Whore's Diet

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