In the manner of exuberant characters, Rufus Wainwright has been in danger of becoming a caricature of himself. Self-reference and indulgence have always been a part of his art, from ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ onwards, but since the release and success of the wantonly lush Want duology, they have increasingly become its sine qua non. When I saw him live in the last stages of his endless support of those records, his infamous staging of the song ‘Gay Messiah’ struck me – rather than as celebratory or subversive – as gauche. When it was announced he would perform a song-for-song match of a Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall, the transformation seemed complete: a promising, inventive and prodigiously talented songwriter had become a sort of absurd commodity.
Release The Stars, the slightly muddled follow-up to the Want CDs, did little to allay such fears. But the newly-released All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu is, despite its title, a deliberate reaction against them. For the most part, the songs are performed with just piano and voice. Many of the songs retain something of the musical about them – the dramatic is an essential part of Wainwright’s sound – but, crucially, they lack theatrics. They emphatically do not feel staged, and there is a serious concentration on content rather than performance. Three of the songs are numbered sonnets, no less – lyric and substance are the priorities.
The album does, alas, fall foul of its own project – it is at times a little one-note, like a whole piece of musical theatre consisting entirely of the song in which the lead character, bloodied but unbowed, sings earnestly and sweetly under a creamy spotlight. The tempo rarely changes, and though these songs are in their forms quite different, that sonic similarity leaves some of them, in the memory at least, a little formless. Still, there are such high points that Wainwright’s return to the intimate intensity of his earlier records has succeeded in crafting recordings and songs which are among his best: Martha, a song which draws on his sister, a recurring muse, and the illness and death of their mother; Who Are You New York?, a beautiful and evocative opener with moments of rare narrative clarity; and The Dream, not just a startling composition but beautifully delivered. Indeed, the real pleasure of this record is Wainwright’s voice: front and centre, it is allowed to hold the record together, full of passion and – yes – personality. But this time, not exaggerated.