Photos by David Greenwald
Rufus Wainwright’s Want One was the unsung hero of 2003, a year in which Radiohead and Broken Social Scene released monster albums and dance-punk took a deep breath and leaped briefly into revelance via the Rapture’s Echoes. That’s not to mention scorchers by the Constantines and the Wrens, or folk masterstrokes by Sufjan Stevens and Jim Guthrie. 2003, in fact, is my favorite year of music in recent memory, one responsible for many of my favorite records and an unbelievably solid top 10 — a list in which Want One has a very high place.
Wainwright’s earned more acclaim for his debut and Poses, which are both solid records in their own right. But it’s on Want One where he truly came into his own. As part of an ambitious product (a second disc, Want Two, was released the following year) with a new producer (Marius de Vries, whose previous credits include Madonna and Bjork), it’s certainly his riskiest work, and arguably his most rewarding. The pay-off is the enormous production that de Vries brings to the table, surrounding Wainwright in strings and horns, pomp and circumstance, all of which plays right into his flamboyant, almost theatrical style.
Regardless of his sexuality and any related stereotypes, Wainwright has always sounded like he’s meant to perform music on a grander scale. Mere pianos and guitars would hardly suffice on tracks like “I Don’t Know What It Is” or “Go or Go Ahead,” though they provide excellent foundations. That said, my favorite songs here are the simpler ballads. “Natasha” and “Dinner at Eight” are magnificent feats of songwriting; “Dinner at Eight,” in particular, is a classic that, like a Tin Pan Alley standard, could work in any context. Still, de Vries helps Wainwright frame his images of “drifting white snow” and hard-boiled anger with film score strings that offer a shimmering backdrop to the singer’s vibrating voice.
All in all, it’s a nearly flawless chamber-pop work that pushes boundaries in both “chamber” and “pop”; Want One represents an intersection of styles and production techniques, but it’s also the defining achievement of one of today’s most compelling performers.
Rufus Wainwright – “Dinner At Eight”: mp3
Rufus Wainwright – “Oh What A World”: mp3
The Canon, Examined is a continuing series spotlighting the finest records to ever slip through the cracks. For previous installments, click below.