Second Verse, Not Like the First
Rufus Wainwright's Brooding, Beautiful Want Two

I just submitted my first writing-for-money work in two years.

It was a 400-word story for the local paper about the high school football team. Not the Great American Novel (or even the Great American Comic Book) by any means, but still. I wrote some words, I put them in order, I sent them to an editor, and in a week or so, I will get paid for it. For the first time in two years. Step one on a long road back, to be sure, but I can’t even tell you how good it feels to be semi-pro again.

Anyway, here’s some writing I did for no money:

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I finalized my Top 10 List this week.

Well, I say finalized, but I should say “finalized,” because it’s only the third week of November. Still, I looked at the album release list for December, then looked over my stack of hopefuls for this year’s list, and realized that (barring some miraculous surprise) nothing from the list has any prayer of making the stack. Seriously, the month sucks.

I have now heard the two wild card albums, both late-year releases from revered favorites, and while I’m allowing myself time to put them both in perspective, both have landed in the stack. I’ll get to U2’s new one next week, but I will say now that I think it’s their best record since 1988, and more of a return to form than All That You Can’t Leave Behind was.

But that’s next week. This is Rufus Wainwright’s week.

You may remember that Wainwright ascended to the top of last year’s hotly contested Top 10 List, just barely beating out the amazing Bruce Cockburn, on the strength of a stunning album called Want One. Since that time, Want One has only grown in my estimation, and I find myself agreeing with Elton John (who ever thought that would happen?) when he says that Wainwright may be the best songwriter in the world right now.

You may also remember that Want has a second half, recorded at the same time as the first but shelved because DreamWorks Records didn’t feel like releasing a double album. Want Two was supposed to come out at the start of 2004, but then Universal Music, the lumbering cannibalistic giant running wild through the media jungle, gobbled up DreamWorks and spit out most of its roster. But now, thanks to David Geffen’s other record company, the one named after him, the record has finally been delivered, more than a year after its brother was born.

The imagery is apt – these albums are certainly siblings, if not twins. There’s no doubt that both Wants came from the same sessions, and from the same glorious musical mind. But you know how siblings can be very different, even if they look exactly alike? Want Two is darker, moodier, mellower and deeper than Want One – where the first album was a near-perfect pop explosion with some operatic touches, the second is its mirror image, a series of operettas composed and played with pop sensibilities.

It makes sense, though – Wainwright is a classically trained pianist who grew up as much in the world of Broadway and theater as he did in his famous parents’ folk circles. His music has always had elements of camp, of grandiosity, and it’s on the Want Two material that he lets those influences come to the fore. But coupled with that inherent pomp is a deep musical intuition. Wainwright has the soul of a composer, and the skills to match, and this album represents his most orchestrated work yet.

What we have here could be 12 songs from 12 different musicals, each with a different character at its core. Just about all of these songs would seem at home on the Broadway stage, sung by lovelorn misfits and beautiful mourners. Guitars appear on less than half the tracks – it’s mostly piano and strings and Wainwright’s delightfully odd voice. Is it a pop album? Yes, if you define pop the way Wainwright does, encompassing the likes of Irving Berlin and Gilbert and Sullivan. Simply put, if you’re looking for songs like “California” and “I Don’t Know What It Is” and “Beautiful Child,” well, they’re not here.

What is here? How about some of the most gorgeous music this guy has ever made. Opener “Agnus Dei” sets the tone – it’s a lengthy orchestrated dirge, all in Latin, with some lovely violin work. “The One You Love” is the only pop song here, but it refuses to be straightforward, dipping into odd times and cool piano bridges. “Crumb By Crumb” is almost a shuffle, with lovely, silly lyrics and an insanely catchy ascending melody.

The stretch of songs from track three to track 10 is the most sustained set of moody ballads Wainwright has yet produced. The whole thing is practically hook-free, but from the first strains of “Peach Trees” you’re immersed in it. “Little Sister,” flirting as it does with incestuous sexual yearning, is pretty much as campy as it gets… until you hit “Gay Messiah,” which belongs in an alternate universe reading of Jesus Christ Superstar. (As you may have guessed, this is an album that would make the moralists in the red states see… well, red.) “Hometown Waltz,” about wanting to torch one’s place of birth, is played for laughs and heartbreak, the cousin of Want One’s “Vibrate.”

But when things get deeper, Wainwright shines. He plays the part of a smitten young student in “The Art Teacher,” a romantic ballad that turns tragic by its conclusion. He probes the role of pain in relationships in the tense, sweeping “Waiting For a Dream,” on which he sings, “You are not my lover and you never will be, ‘cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me.” Best of all, though, he gently mourns the passing of Jeff Buckley on “Memphis Skyline,” the most subdued and haunting song here.

Wainwright’s only misstep is the closer, “Old Whore’s Diet,” which stretches its pulsing beat and its one melody out for nine minutes. He brings in a guest vocalist, Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, and it just… doesn’t work. The song’s structure mimics Want One’s opener, “Oh What a World,” but it goes on too long and wears out its welcome long before the impressive finish.

The production, once again by Marius de Vries, is perfect. It would have been sadly easy to let these songs slip all the way into camp with overblown arrangements, but Team Wainwright pulls off the balancing act again. (They get help this time from one Van Dyke Parks, who seems to be everywhere this year…) Even something as flamboyant as “Little Sister” avoids silliness through its careful score, and when the tone downshifts for something like “Memphis Skyline,” the production is breathtaking.

Despite this album’s obvious wonders, though, it is a much more difficult work, and I find myself wishing that Want hadn’t been broken up into two releases. I get the sense that Wainwright and de Vries crafted Want One and then assembled Want Two out of what was left, so perfect is the former record. Had Wainwright mixed his pop and his pomp more thoroughly, both albums would have been amazing. As it is, though, they are two distinct journeys, inviting comparison, and Want One wins it.

It would be a mistake to think of Want Two as a collection of cast-offs, however. These songs are just as worthy of release, even if cumulatively their effect is less. A disjointed Rufus Wainwright album is still better than most artists’ finest work, of course, and it seems petty to complain about a record with 11 fantastic tracks. If Wainwright himself hadn’t set the bar so high with Want One, I would be praising this no end. It’s best to think of this album as part two, as a second act that isn’t meant to stand alone, and if you listen to Want in its entirety, the scope of Wainwright’s vision is impressive. It’s just too bad it wasn’t released that way.

Still, nothing wrong with the silver medal, and if you have both albums, you can play them back to back and pretend the record company never messed with it. And then you can watch the excellent live DVD that comes with Want Two. And then you can play the albums again. Rufus Wainwright is on the short list of songwriters that I will follow until one of us dies, and if his next project brings together all of the disparate influences that make up Want into a cohesive whole, it will be downright incredible.

Next week, dismantling an atomic bomb with U2. This is my 200th column, by the way, and the usual thanks for supporting and reading my work are in order. I truly appreciate it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.