“Who’s ever been free in this world / Who has never had to bleed in this world?” questions a brooding Rufus Wainwright in his newest effort, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.” These painfully ponderous reflections represent the culmination of a major shift for Wainwright. The troubadour has been slowly moving away from the disaffected, dissolute charm of his early efforts, most notably on 2001 breakout album “Poses,” and towards an artistic seriousness that has motivated him to write an opera and compose a score for the Philadelphia Ballet during the last five years. In Wainwright’s recording career, this development has uprooted his lyrical subject matter from the glitzy side streets of Chelsea and launched him into the vague and airy realm of love, loss, and remorse. His musical range has been correspondingly streamlined from the likes of synthesizers, horns, strings, and drums, to a simple piano.
But if “All Days Are Nights” is an unalterable step towards a kind of maturity, it is also a regrettable one. In growing more earnest, some of Wainwright’s compositions have reached a previously unexplored height of emotional and intellectual resonance, an important part of which is Wainwright’s commitment to the piano. More saliently, however, the overwhelming sentimentality of this latest album has blunted the artist’s edge and overshadowed his great musical talent.
“The Dream,” the standout track on “All Days Are Nights,” signifies what potential there is in Wainwright’s new style. Employing an uplifting chord progression in a refreshing major key, Wainwright warbles, “The dream has come and gone / The earth lumbers on / The dream is back in space / Back where it came from.” Striking a fantastic, wistful, and yet powerful tone, Wainwright here describes a kind of loss that avoids the lure of saccharine self-pity. His imagery, of an earth “lumbering on” and of galactic dreams, is sweet and clear without being cloying. After a brief and discordant piano part, Wainwright ends the song by belting, “I truly loved / Which is harder to do, yes it’s harder to do / Yes it’s harder, harder, harder, to do / Than to dream of.” The repetition of the word “harder” is moving, and the softly and slowly spoken phrase “to dream of” terminates the song on an extremely haunting note.
However, nearly the entire rest of the album falls into two unfortunate categories: that of exasperating melancholy and sappy happiness. In “True Loves,” the chief example of the former group, the piano plays in a minor key at an unbearably slow pace. Wainwright’s voice drips with emotion as he intones, “It’s the true loves / That make me want to cry / It’s the true loves / That make me want to say goodbye.” It is entirely unclear what Wainwright is talking about beyond the level of platitudes, and the broader feeling conveyed, that of love’s sadness and longing, is just as bland. Towards the end of the ballad, the piano delves into a cascading and unpleasant series of arpeggios that make little sense with such downhearted lyrics.
The chirpy piano notes and effusively confident narrative of “Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!” offer the same schmaltz in an antipodal key. After accusing an unidentified other of being a “holy cow” and a “greedy sow”, Wainwright exclaims, “I will eat you, your folks, and your kids / For breakfast!” “Sow” and “cow” form a fairly contrived rhyme, and Wainwright is searching too hard for a list of things to eat for breakfast if he has to separate “your folks” and “your kids.” In a broader sense, the childlike fun of this song is pestering, even vapid, whether or not it is intentional.
Wainwright remains an undeniably gifted and intelligent songwriter. “The Dream,” as well as a set of three songs in the middle of the album in which Wainwright sets three Shakespeare sonnets to piano accompaniment, reitreate the creative gifts that the artist has shown throughout his career. Given his past success and glimpses of his continuing talent, then, the main response to “All Days Are Nights” is one of disappointment. Most songs simply don’t live up to Wainwright’s billing. Besides the intellectual clout that makes him great, and the years that have made him alternatively sad and sappy, it may be that he just sounds best when he is having fun.
—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.