This Charming Man

Willfully fey 24-year-old singer-composer-subgenius Rufus Wainwright wants to take us back. How far back? Way back, to about 1820 if my calculations are correct.

"Schubert busts my brain," he sings during "Imaginary Love," the closest approximation of alternative (or even contemporary) pop you'll hear on his ostentatiously anachronistic, self-titled debut. He's not messing around. Wainwright's meticulously groomed song-poetry and oneiric pop orchestrations might suggest Porter and the Gershwins, but this spawn of folk icons Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle--weaned on Eurythmics videos and his "punk rocker" pals' Fugazi tapes--would be happiest living in an age in which opera was the hottest mixed-media going. His long, lush songs are cluttered with classical, operatic, and Biblical references: Job, Desdemona and "brown-eyed Tosca," Katya Kabanova, and those "damned ladies of Orpheus." And even if he admits to passions for more recent arrivals like Enrico Caruso and Igor Stravinsky, he knows deep down in his humanistic soul that Western Civ had a nice li'l vibe goin' until Rite of Spring came along and softened us up for Trent Reznor.

Okay, that's a little over the top. But, hey, so was Enrico. Of course Rufus digs Igor. And Leonard Bernstein, Nina Simone, her '90s analog Björk, Prince, and Sonic Youth. Though he sounds nothing like any of them. If anything, Rufus Wainwright is Randy Newman kind of stuff, right down to the Van Dyke Parks string arrangements and the financial backing of '70s über-producer Lenny Waronker--except that Wainwright takes inspiration from beauty and passion where Newman drew from history and irony.

A triumphantly plain singer and powerful composer, Wainwright grew up in Montreal with his "very aesthetic" mother, who introduced him to opera, the standards, parlor music, and music hall. By 14 he was out of the closet and smoking pot. He was then shipped off to Millbrook Academy in Dutchess County, New York, where he fell for Thomas Hardy, Euripides, and upscale culture in general. He dropped out of Montreal's prestigious McGill University and wandered from coast to coast, with a short stopover in Minneapolis--where he worked at the New French Cafe and even played the Loring once--before his old man got him a deal with Waronker's Dreamworks label.

Yet, while his pomo-Dickensian pedigree obviously informs his music, Wainwright seems most profoundly shaped by a dread affliction pop fans might know as Morrissimplex A: a condition of youth, beauty, and total chastity. See, despite coming out at 14, Rufus has never had a boyfriend. "I'm just too picky," he says in a phone interview from his apartment in New York, pausing to add, "and busy." He's a lousy liar: "I don't want to love you and feel so helpless/I don't want to smell you and lose my senses," our boy croons with pinched aggression at the very beginning of Rufus Wainwright, against a slight, sweet piano-man-at-3 a.m. accompaniment. Opera aspirations notwithstanding, boyfriend cannot act. If ever he had the chance he'd "chain you up without shame."

He never does. And it kills him. On the dainty "Danny Boy," he compares his spurning to Job's. The album-closing Morrissey-sings-soul tune "Imaginary Love" claims that the sensual world his mind divines is so removed from that of the flesh that "his kind of love" can only be an "imaginary love." Here is the astral weakling--the lover who loves the love that loves the love that loves to love, but has never loved for real. The sight of your "beauty mark" sends him into a fit of Tin Pan Alley piano affectation so vibrantly limp-wristed, producer Jon Brion has to legitimize its bombast with timpani and tinkling bells. Wainwright's angst is so heavy, even RW's surest pop hook--the line in "April Fools" comparing Valentine's Day to April Fools Day--has a sour sentiment.

But these aren't just tales of affliction; they're tales of affliction told in an age of affliction. Wainwright's delivery, which is both droll and histrionic, makes for wonderful (undanceable) gay soul music--Crocodile Rock that sobs the elephant man's tears. Two lovely ballads ("Barcelona" and "Baby") and the angry, music-hall number "Matinee Idol" have AIDS subtexts. He's scared. And it's damn sad to see someone this beautiful have to resign himself to getting off on Callas singing "Norma" when he should be getting off for real.

Which can't even happen in his imagination, a device so powerful it could turn the pissroom Muzak of an Indiana truck stop into a Brahms sonata. On the Gershwinian ode to "Millbrook," he looks beyond "all the evening breakdowns" and mistakes the prep school of his youth for Eden. All right, "Zion." But as drippy visions go, it's got "This Charming Man" beat by half the moors of Manchester.

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