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By John Hartman
Most listeners know Rufus Wainwright as a deeply personal songwriter. His songs are achingly intimate and his devoted following worships his ability to be in touch with how they’re feeling through beautiful writing and singing. However, Wainwright has never been shy to speak out about social and political issues, particularly ones that affect him personally. In anticipation of his upcoming album (due May 15) “Release the Stars,” we look back at the songbird’s socio-political songs, none of which are preachy or showy, but instead relevant and increasingly important.
Although not released on any of his official studio albums, Wainwright put this song on his initial demo for DreamWorks, and copies still exist today. The crooner complains about America, a subject he will again tackle on his next album, starting with the opening line, “Sometimes I think you’re trying to kill me with your stars and stripes.” Wainwright’s cynicism is well intact here, and it’s both a beautiful and melancholy song, a strong indicator of things to come.
On his first self-titled studio album, Wainwright steered clear of large political issues, but he touches upon the AIDS affliction in “Barcelona,” a song about wanting to get away and have fun, but not being able to do so. Also filled with allusions to both Shakespeare and Verdi, this grandly operatic song shows that brick wall between a debilitating disease and a fun-loving lifestyle.
While not a particularly scathing denunciation of wealthy lifestyles and the upper class, “California” does contain some sharp comments on fame and fortune, as embodied by the glitzy but shallow West Coast. It’s one of the most radio-friendly tracks on “Poses,” and it becomes a sort of anti-anthem against the mindless and repetitive fluff that Hollywood and the like pass off as entertainment.
Oh What a World
Wainwright opens “Want One” with one of the biggest orchestrations he’s taken on so far, and the song, which samples Ravel’s “Bolero,” is an ironic testament to the fact that we need to slow down. He scoffs at the possibility of there being a piece of good news in the New York Times and again declares that we live in a world dominated by straight men. Oh what a world, indeed.
Go or Go Ahead
Much like most of “Want One,” “Go or Go Ahead” is an ultra personal song told in a very intimate way, but it deals with a much larger issue as well: drug addiction. Written about Wainwright’s own personal battle with a crystal meth addiction, it’s a furious and angry cautionary tale, while being ultimately optimistic.
Another of the more redemptive songs on “Want One,” “11:11” sheds light on a post-9/11 world. It’s an upbeat song for such a somber subject, but Wainwright does not dwell on Sept. 11 as a manipulative heart-tugger; he instead uses it to show that time is precious – and shouldn’t be wasted – while it still exists.
This beautiful opener to “Want Two” is completely in Latin and uses lyrics from a Catholic Mass chant, but it serves as a prayer and a protest at the same time. Written at the beginning of the Iraq War, Wainwright asks for forgiveness for the world’s sins and while he may not exactly be a practicing Catholic, his gorgeously wrought cry for a little bit of divine intervention would fit nicely into any church service.
Maybe the most social song he’s written, and certainly the most controversial, “Gay Messiah” is provocative, haunting, tongue-in-cheek in short – everything Wainwright is all about is summed up here. It’s a protest tune and an anthem, and it marks one of many high points in Wainwright’s career for the sheer audacity and meaningfulness of it all.
Waiting for a Dream
Wainwright’s lullaby with a drum machine is another cry for change, and this time it refers to the “ogre in the oval office,” George W. Bush. Wainwright has always been vocal about his dislike for the current administration and “Waiting for a Dream” is a brooding letter to Bush, telling him quite clearly, “You are not my lover.”
The Maker Makes
One of Wainwright’s most beautiful songs does not appear on any of his studio albums, but rather on the soundtrack to “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s a simple song filled with a complex issue: a man struggling with his homosexuality and his religion. The combination of the two has always been a conflicting issue, and this meditation on the subject, especially being associated with the abovementioned film, makes it ultimately sad.
Release The Stars
Available May 15