The son of folk music regals, Rufus Wainwright has endured high valleys of vices over the years, carving a career as one of today's most thoughtful and intriguing singer/songwriters along the way. He's one of the few in the genre's contemporary stable capable of restoring genuine imagination and, indeed, dignity, to what's too often become a bloated group of b-list actors strumming acoustics. He's opinionated, articulate, and, according to legend, obscenely charming. And never, it would seem, without something worth discussing on his mind. The man counts Elton John and Burt Bacharach as friends, for goodness' sake. So when Wainwright's publicist reported to the Mercury that a sore throat would prohibit Rufus from partaking in our scheduled interview last week—with a suitable make-up date impossible to schedule before printing deadlines—that news was received with something bordering on despair. But, as it happens, Wainwright's malady affords his newest collection of songs (his fifth studio set to date) the opportunity to speak for him.
The album is, of course, a characteristically sprawling opus of unique musicality made especially significant because its execution marked Wainwright's first foray into producing his own work. Release the Stars' ambitious soundscapes are all the more interesting, too, because they weren't designed to flower that way. No, Wainwright originally conceived the set as a sparse and pared-down record. But once he abdicated America for Berlin last summer, the album he'd been plotting as a reaction to 2004's acclaimed—and deftly orchestrated—Want Two, quickly began to surpass even that disc's breadth. Without, it should be noted, becoming an exercise in excess.
Although Release the Stars does indulge Wainwright's tendency toward open, accessible, and slightly unconventional songwriting architecture, it also captures a candid new introspection—negotiating feelings toward the self, state, and, often, state-of-self. Utilizing his lilting whisper and a parade of guest collaborators including, but hardly limited to, his sister Martha, executive producer and former Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, Teddy Thompson, and, in a neat bit of casting, British thespian Siân Phillips (Masterpiece Theatre), who delivers a natural drama to the spoken-word passage on "Between My Legs"—his vision, as it's almost always been, is expertly realized.
Inspired in great part by the potential threats a serious surgery posed for his mother, Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle, Release the Stars also sees the deliciously flamboyant (he sports a set of monogrammed lederhosen in the disc's liner notes) savant steadily maturing as he approaches his (gasp!) mid-30s.Considering that Wainwright has committed to authoring an opera for New York's newly reinvigorated Metropolitan Opera theater and is currently in the midst of renewing touring acquaintances with like-minded troubadour Sean Lennon (the pair last toured together in 1998), it's obvious that Wainwright's following his own advice.
So, though we got the short end of the stick this time around, it's perhaps best that Wainwright still has opportunities to rest his vocal instrument. If his future's anything like his past and present—and all indications are that he's only now entering his prime as a songwriter—you can bet he's going to need it.