The Experimental Rufus Wainwright Goes Mainstream with Out of the Game

After writing an opera and recreating Judy Garland's classic Carnegie Hall show, Wainwright teams with power producer Mark Ronson for his most commercial album yet

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If all his Shakespeare and opera was getting a little heady for you, Rufus Wainwright’s new release is just the thing. Out of the Game, a title presumably reflecting on the singer’s recent absence from the pop circuit that made his name, is packed full of light, artistic goodies, 12 tracks of primarily dreamy confections that alone would be a complete album from any other artist. But Wainwright is also a consummate songwriter, and ultimately all those tasty little pop nuggets serve as glittery packing peanuts for one of his best-ever compositions.

The opening title track sets the tone with a melody reminiscent of Wainwright’s classic “California”, easy, comparatively languid vocals lulling the listener back to a familiar place. This is Poses redux, but over 10 years later, that’s still a great album—so why fix what’s not broken? Wainwright does warm, artsy pop ballads with disarming ease, and it’s so nice to see him back in his sweet spot that the first half-dozen or so tracks blend together, a mélange of backing female vocals and orchestral flourishes.

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Wainwright meanders pleasantly through songs self-referential (on “Rashida”: “I’d like to thank you Rashida for doing this/and giving me a reason to write a song”) and self-indulgent (synth twirls on “Barbara” frame lyrics about “drinking rosé in the rain”), and it all feels very fun and very par for the course—just another variant on the sugary, swooning pop that made him famous—which is what makes “Montauk” such an effective gut punch.

“Montauk”, named for the area the Wainwright clan currently calls home, opens with the flowing piano that characterizes his most emotional works, and other than some synths in the background (which could frankly be done without), the song is instrumentally bare. An open letter to Wainwright’s baby daughter with his partner and the daughter of Leonard Cohen, “Montauk” anticipates a teenager’s future embarrassment of her parents: “One day you will come to Montauk/and see your dad wearing a kimono/and see your other dad pruning roses/hope you won’t turn around and go.” A later verse imagines her seeing “your dad playing the piano/and see your other dad wearing glasses,” reflecting the universal hope that our children will understand us. Ever brutally honest, if she finds Wainwright being unkind to her “other dad,” Wainwright “hope[s] that you will protect him/and stay.”

The sweetness of his hopes turns a little bittersweet as he imagines the teenager: “Don’t worry/I know you’ll have to go,” he sighs, before remembering Wainwright’s dear late mother, Kate McGarrigle—“she does wait for us in the ocean/and although we want to stay for a while/don’t worry/we all have to go.” Wainwright slips back into easy synthpop after this, but he’s already shown his hand. How many other artists today could pen an ode to family life that imagines meeting a future teenaged daughter, navigating the changes of her growing independence, and reflecting on the universal truths of life and death, all in one transcendent package?

Of course, most of Wainwright’s apparent ease is by careful design. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing him in concert know him to be both a talented and self-demanding performer who follows his art so far as to occasionally write pieces that nearly surpass his own abilities. This reviewer has seen him contort himself over the piano in sheer effort to fulfill his own compositions, and here he turned over guitar duties to Sean Lennon on “Sometimes You Need” in order to get a gorgeous, meticulously picked riff just as he envisioned it. Wainwright also gets a little help from his friends via sister Martha on “Perfect Man”, as well as appearances by Nels Cline and the Dap-Kings, among others.

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Later track “Song for You” was written for Wainwright’s partner, and according to the press material, it was recorded on the roof of the Montauk house at night. “It’s no wonder so many great love songs are technically demanding—the real killer moments are usually these vocal acrobatic things that mirror the reality of being in love, and all that you have to do, and all that it brings,” Wainwright notes with earnest humility. Heart-rending closer “Candles” reflects on McGarrigle’s death and Wainwright’s helplessness and grief for her: “I tried to do all that I can/but the churches have run out of candles.” With a crisp marching snare, dirge-like bagpipes that fade to black, and a solemn seven-minute run time, “Candles” draws the record to an emphatic, masterful close.

On his seventh studio release, Rufus Wainwright’s got nothing left to prove to anybody, yet he proves it anyway. He’s got it all here: fun pop trifles, moody love songs, masterful opuses of mourning and love. Out of the Game turns out to be one of those ironic titles in the end. Wainwright’s not out of it; he’s the chess master.

Essential Tracks: “Montauk”, “Barbara” and “Candles”

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