If Rufus Wainwright’s last album was all about addictions, poses and obsessions with sex and boys and beauty, then his new release takes those themes, adds more strings, and adds one more obsession for good measure: love. Both in concert and on his records Wainwright is the past and present king of the Grand Sweeping Gesture. Want One is no exception; about halfway through “Oh What A World” we suddenly realize that we are listening to a plaintive reinterpretation of Ravel’s “Bolero.” (This is something that only Wainwright could get away with—despite the way it sounds on paper it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It is, in fact, quite stunning in its excecution.)
The thing about gestures, though, is unless there’s some real emotion behind them, they are, well, empty. While Wainwright has flirted with this reality in the past (“The Consort,” from Poses was a song…about…a movie?) this collection of songs has the emotional angst to temper the score. He is still singing wistfully about “pretty things” and “rebel angels,” but this album also contains one of the loveliest songs ever written about cell phones: “Vibrate.” The song is also an example of another theme on the album: age. He is getting older. He cannot “dance like Britney Spears,” he is “getting on in years.” References to, of all things, electroclash and karaoke, give way to a spirit which is not at all tongue-in-cheek: “God knows what all these new drugs do / I guessed to have no more fears / but still I always end up in tears.” By the time he sings “Call me,” it feels more like an honest plea than a wink.
The title track exemplifies the mood of the album. After musing about his parents and referencing John Lithgow and Jane Curtin (huh?) he closes the song by placing himself in an airport, having packed his passport and feeling quite lost. He asks “Tell me, will you make me sad or happy / and will you settle for love?”
Want One is the sound of a man who is lost and bewildered by love and age and modern life. Rumor has it that there will be a Want Two. It’s impossible to imagine what more he could want or how he will follow this up, but if it sounds as good as this, let’s hope he keeps the map of the emotional terrain he’s opened intact.