Rufus Wainwright 'Out of the Game'

Rufus Wainwright
Out of the Game
(Universal)

Ever wonder what it would sound like if Rufus Wainwright teamed up with Mark Ronson and his crack team of players? Guys who have backed Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse? Well, funky, for one. But as this seventh studio album proves most of all, a great producer and seamless cast of musicians just lets Rufus be Rufus, gliding his way through moods and styles with trademark wit and heart. His singing is by turns arch and exquisite, his songwriting finely tuned. Roll all of that into a pop package and you’ve got a rare album that’s both classy and fun.

We begin at the title track, opening with countrified electric licks by the Dap-Kings’ Thomas Brenneck. Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss is in there too, and bassist Nick Movshon (Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson), introducing the backbone of the album. But this is no glossy soul track, despite those guys and a trio of back-up singers. It’s more classic than retro, with a timeless singer-songwriter heart that Ronson has compared to the golden era of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. And yeah, there’s a Jackson Browne vibe happening for sure.

Detailing sexual warfare with coy lyrics, the gently orchestrated ‘Jericho’ flows like a continuation of that first track even as it nears the baroque heights Wainwright has explored in the past. Its firm bounce continues through the shivering ‘Rashida’ and the wry exuberance of ‘Welcome to the Ball’, with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline lending a swirling melody to the smooth R&B romance of ‘Barbara’ (“Drinking rosé in the rain”). As wavering and drifting as other songs are tight, ‘Montauk’ touches on having two dads with a dreamy narrative sigh.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner lends slinky guitar to the synth warmth of ‘Bitter Tears’, while ‘Respectable Dive’ adopts card-game metaphors and a ballad-y country sway. The latter and ‘Montauk’ are the only songs where Wainwright plays his once-loyal piano: on the rest he just sings and plays selected acoustic guitar or synth. Kicking off with rolling drums that recall past Ronson productions, ‘Perfect Man’ sets bleary-eyed lyrics to a cool nightclub smoulder.

Built around the intimacy of Sean Lennon’s acoustic guitar, ‘Sometimes You Need’ is a soft gem worthy of Chet Baker, right down to the line “Let’s get lost.” More akin to Cole Porter, ‘Song of You’ is self-reflexive: “So you want a song just for you / There are many melodies to choose from / But there’s only one you.”

Twice as long as most of the other songs at nearly eight minutes, the closing ‘Candles’ is a tribute to Wainwright’s mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. It features backing vocals from his musical family – father London Wainwright III, sisters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Roche and aunt Sloan Wainwright – and Kate’s sister and longtime collaborator Anna McGarrigle plays accordion. Between the lovely refrain (“The churches have run out of candles”) and knowingly placed bagpipe, it’s a tender piece that radiates healing.

Wainwright has said Out of the Game was inspired by his late mother as well as his new daughter. But it’s anything but preoccupied, devoted as it is to short, snappy tunes full of bright flourishes. Still, Wainwright’s acute lyrics make themselves increasingly known, and the guest-stacked arrangements and Ronson’s punchy pop production only underscore their emotional resonance. Wainwright’s voice, meanwhile, is vibrant and possessed of an angelic lift without ever going over the top. Like everything here, it’s perfectly poised.

Doug Wallen

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