RUFUS WAINWRIGHT at the Mod Club (722 College), Wednesday (December 8). $29.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
In the context of folks like Elton and Etheridge - whose MOR hits avoid pronouns that would give away their sexuality - Rufus Wainwright's operatic melodrama and unapologetically queer lyrics have surely been a life raft for many a baroque-obsessed closeted kid.
While his aesthetic may be the furthest thing from your typical rough trade twink, Wainwright is quick to credit the queercore pioneers and homo-punks who've been rocking the musical identity politics in a less flamboyant mode for decades now for giving him inspiration
"I've always had a real affinity and love for the punk gay sensibility, and I've certainly always been a fan of its youthful-looking boys," Wainwright quips. "Oddly enough, I'd say my kind of attitude in being who the hell I am and getting what I want has been borrowed from the cutting-edge punk scene. You wouldn't be able to tell from the music I make or the clothes I wear, but I'm so enamoured of that society.
"They may not look baroque on the surface, but I've discovered that if you rub aside the rough exterior - and believe me, I've rubbed," he laughs, "you can find elements of the very cultured society I like to pretend I'm part of."
Want Two, the disc released this fall to complete his two-album opus, does has elements of that crustier punk rock sensibility. You can hear it in Gay Messiah's references to the tube-socked beefcakes in 70s porn and the titular, uh, nutritional preferences in Old Whore's Diet, a hypnotic primal dance that features soaring vocals by Lou Reed pal Antony.
Otherwise, Wainwright's new disc feels, finally, like a full realization of the glorious self-indulgence he's only sporadically achieved over the rest of his career. Where Want One was spotty in tone and technique, awkwardly merging, say, lyrics about Britney Spears and cellphones with keening arias (Vibrate), Want Two balances humour and pathos with successful experimentation, from album opener Agnus Dei, a string-drenched, Hebraic-tinged chant, to the hooky pop of The One You Love (with fab backing vocals by sister Martha) to Hometown Waltz, the record's accordion- and fiddle-buoyed MMM (Mandatory McGarrigle Moment, in Rufus's parlance).
Wainwright has called this the "feminine" counterpart to Want One. The cover art, which casts the singer as a gown- and ringlet-adorned Lady of Shallott, makes that obvious, as does The Art Teacher, an uncharacteristically simple narrative seen through the eyes of a middle-aged mom recalling the teacher who turned her on to Turner.
Wainwright says the theme goes deeper.
"I've always believed that albums are made before they're ever thought of, by randomly channelling things from the heavens. After what I went through" - he's candidly fessed up to his struggles with crystal meth, a drug he dubs gay hell - "in order for me to survive as a human and to regain my strength and health, I had to imitate and emulate a lot of my dad's characteristics. I basically had to become a man, to look at everything in a cold, calculating way, to be very unemotional about what was going on.
"I know women have it, too, but it's a typically male attitude," he quickly adds. "After that was done, to enjoy my life again I had to regain some of my compassion and sensitivity and not be such a hardass, which I identify as being a female characteristic. That's what this record means to me."
Want Two is certainly jam-packed with women. Sister Martha contributes way more backing vocals, which is always a good thing, the McGarrigles show up on several tracks, cousin Lily Lanken (who doubles as Martha's manager) plays recorder, former Ryan Adams flame Leona Naess and Roche sister Suzzy provide lovely girly moments, and Gina Gershon plays the Jew's harp.
Yes, that Gina Gershon.
"I've known her for a couple years through Tom Ford - you know, from Gucci?" Wainwright breezily explains. "Gina's a real Hollywood survivor. She knows how to land work whenever she needs it. She happened to be in London when I was there recording, and we needed a Jew's harp player on this one track. So she miraculously pulled a Jew's harp out of her purse and went for it."