Back when Rufus Wainwright got his start (this being the mid-to-late nineties—cast your minds back, everyone), pop music was awash in the hopeful spawn of past legends and cult heroes. Sean Lennon. Jeff Buckley. Adam Cohen. Jakob Dylan. Norah Jones.
The talents of these musicians varied wildly, as did their eventual paths. But after a series of deaths both figurative and, in one rare sad case, literal, few of them are still relevant today. This week, Norah Jones is releasing her fifth album thanks to a surprising ability to use savvy collaborations to sidestep the atrophy that normal seizes her Starbucks-soundtracking kin. And then there's Rufus Wainwright.
Despite his own best attempts at career suicide (including everything from writing an opera and releasing double-album/DVD recreations of a Judy Garland concert to binging on a volatile mix of crystal meth and reckless sex), Wainwright is still very much alive and kicking.
The quick and easy answer as to why this is so is that he truly is very, very talented—every ounce of his swooning narcissism and hedonistic, self-indulgent ambitions are met by equal amounts of raw ability and stunning reinvention. With the possible exception of Buckley, Wainwright is the greatest of that class of 1990s famous sons and daughters, and if his parents' collective pedigree got his foot in the door, he's never failed to convince that he deserves to be there on the merit of his work alone. This great ability aside, the man's keen sense of humour (a wonderfully balanced mix of bashful self-deprecation and preening arrogance) has often been what makes him more than just another gifted musician (not to mention, his ego bearable, charming even).
Out of the Game could refer to a few things (Wainwright is both recently married and now a proud daddy), but certainly the most obvious way to take it is as a winking (if overdue) concession of his stakes in the game of world celebrity. For a guy who very clearly saw himself as a star-in-the-making upon his debut, this can't be especially easy. On the title track, Wainwright softens the blow the only way he knows how, goading his younger opponents with a chorus of "Look at you suckers! Does your mama know what you're doing?"
But if this album is meant to in some way pass the torch to a new parade of younger, prettier, and generally ill-fated dreamers, Wainwright intends to teach them a thing or do while doing so. Hitching up with producer Mark Ronson (a man who only knows hits) has led to what is easily Rufus' most amicable, consistent, and fun record since 2001's Poses.
In this way, it is the antithesis of the lovely, but single-mindedly serious meditation of the piano and voice of his last full-length, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (an at times difficult record that was still miles more enjoyable than that other recent Lulu album...). Where that record was dominated by the passing of his beloved mother, Kate McGarrigle, and his bold move into opera, Out of the Game seeks to remind himself of the things around him that make his life a special one.
Though Wainwright can mope with the best of them, his brand of joy is particularly contagious and redeeming...and sometimes just plain silly. The volatile camp of the female vocal solo that wraps up "Rashida" may be like "The Great Gig in the Sky" as reimagined by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but it works because of how it fits into Wainwright's larger world—a place where every indulgence is not only permitted, but enthusiastically encouraged.
Elsewhere, the grooves and song lengths are both tight, and hooks abound—a wild contrast to much of his more recent albums which were full of languid second acts and where pleasures, while great and varied, had to be earned and coaxed from hiding.
It's not so much that nothing on Game hits a serious note—the closing "Candles" is a typically stunning and elegiac conclusion to this record. But even when engaged in reflection, the guy sounds far more content with his lot than he has in years. And well he should: at 38, he has achieved far more than even the most smitten optimist could have predicted. Truth is, he's far from out of the game...and he's taking great pleasure in rewriting the rules.