I confess, I had my initial doubts: on first listen, I wasn't quite sure what Rufus Wainwright was doing on his fifth album, Release the Stars. It didn't seem musically coherent, and his lyrics were as difficultly erudite as ever. However, the second run-through left me convinced of its merits and the fifth go found me in love with it.
The themes are as Rufusish as ever - gay life, true love and hard break-ups, crystal meth, fellow musicians - and although his stated intention was to take this familiar material in an unfamiliar direction (less outre, more cash-producing than Want), the upper reaches of his orchestrations have broken all previous boundaries and it's all as personal and deliciously esoteric as before.
The opener - 'Do I Disappoint You' - is lush and elaborate, with seemingly an instrument from every country all piling onto lyrics challenging a lover's expectations. The lyrics are typically comic-serious, verging from the fundamental questions ('Do I disappoint in you in just being human?') to banshees screeching out hysterical slogans. This is all underpinned by a strong string section and thundering brass, swelling and falling, sometimes abruptly, emphasising
If anything more complex and larger scale were possible, it is 'Between My Legs'. Its saucy lyric ('I'll shed a tear for you/ Between my legs') about a dumped lover turns into a symphonic plan to run away together, then Sian Philips uses her best evil I, Claudius voice to speak the lyrics above the sound of trumpets, and that's before Rufus introduces the signature chords from Phantom of the Opera to crown it all.
At completely the other end of the musical scale, we are drawn into the hurt chambers of Rufus' heart with 'Leaving for Paris No. 2', where just a piano and then a cello perform a waltz of broken-heartedness. Eschewing grandeur of sound for nobility of heart, he advises a former lover not to chase him to Paris, wounded but still tender. 'Not Ready to Love' is also wounded and tender, but it doesn't feel like it goes anywhere, but 'Tiergarten' is delicately wonderful ('Won't you walk me through it all, darling').
First single 'Going to a Town' is perhaps the most obvious yet most thoughtful musical polemic. 'I'm so tired of you, America' is not a subtle lyric, but elsewhere it is still thoughtful and beautiful, especially when background singers jump in to dramatically reinforce the lyrics. Simultaneously elegiac and angry, Rufus leaves for Berlin (the 'town that has already been burnt down').
Just in case you think Rufus has lost his sense of humour, there's plenty of sly and savage laughter to be had. On 'Tulsa' he questions the sexuality of Brandon Flowers, the married Mormon lead singer of the Killers, and says he's so handsome he has 'the Marlon Brando club calling'.
He appears to out a movie star on 'Nobody's Off the Hook' (listen carefully - you can work it out), while he criticises the whole Hollywood system on 'Release the Stars' ('Old Hollywood is over'). The release he has in mind also has to do with coming out, since studios' lies won't survive public scrutiny, and this is all framed in a bluesy, jazz-bandy affair, smoky and ballsy. 'Slideshow' twists from its earnest start ('Do I love you?') to hysterical demands to appear in holiday snaps 'because I paid a lot of money to get you over here, you know', before reconciling the two.
Perhaps most deceptive is 'Sanssouci', which has a light, harp-accompanied tune but is really about the illusory promise of crystal meth. Its initial glamour and delight are empty and painful.
I remain a little unsure that the whole album coheres, but I'm not even sure how important this is when each song is a little gem, sparkling with wonderfully composed music and lyrics. Just as before, Rufus treads the territory of the heart while exploiting every resource music can provide, only this time grander, more heart-breaking, funnier, sadder, louder, quieter - more Rufus.