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Review: 'Unfollow The Rules' Showcases Rufus Wainwright's Songwriting

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 10, 2020
Review: 'Unfollow The Rules' Showcases Rufus Wainwright's Songwriting

Rufus Wainwright has described his tenth and latest album, "Unfollow the Rules," as a return to a pop style. But "pop" is a rather trite way of summing up his music, as Wainwright's interests in classical music and opera have always greatly informed his compositional style. Even with his roots in folk music — being the son of folk legend Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters — Wainwright isn't your standard singer/songwriter with a piano and acoustic guitar.

As a pop-oriented album, this is his first since 2012's "Out of the Game." Wainwright followed that album with an opera, "Prima Donna" (2015), and then "Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets" (2016), rendering the poet's work with modern classical compositions. Wainwright recently released "Unmaking Unfollow the Rules," a brief film detailing how his latest work transpired after those projects.

In terms of pop form and production style, "Unfollow the Rules" recalls his "Poses" (2001) and "Release the Stars" (2007) albums and, to a certain extent, his 1998 debut. But such comparisons aren't to suggest his new work is derivative. Rather, the ongoing evolution of Wainwright's songwriting is on display here. Listen to his albums chronologically, and it's easy to hear the maturation and development of style that threads through his work in the last 22 years.

Album openers "Trouble in Paradise" and "Damsel in Distress" are framed with standard pop/rock instrumentation — piano, guitars, bass, drums — augmented by strings and backing vocals. These songs more or less adhere to pop structure. But when the chorus section for "Trouble in Paradise" arrives, it doesn't hit you over the head. Rather than providing instant gratification, these melodies charm their way into the subconsciousness. Midway through, album highlight "Only the People That Love" is no less ornate. Yet, Wainwright masterfully makes use of rudimentary elements — a slow, reflective tempo, strummed guitar, unadorned rhythms, haunting backing vocals, and steel guitar — and places focus on the song's equally as straightforward message: "only the people that love may dream in the world of the silent scream... only the people that love may fly."

The sweeping orchestration on the title track allows the song to unfold and build dynamically, recalling earlier songs such as "Memphis Skyline" (2004) and "Release the Stars" (2007) among others. The waltzy "This One's for the Ladies (That Lunge!)" is similarly lush, while the operatic and tension-filled "Hatred" bursts into a rock-oriented chorus section. "Early Morning Madness" yawns and stumbles to the kitchen for coffee, referencing the spare piano motif of "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," arguably Wainwright's signature song (not that this is the first time... the opening keyboard of "Natasha," from his 2003 masterwork "Want One," also bears a striking resemblance to that song).

Characteristic of his style as a lyricist, Wainwright's wit is present from the outset and deployed purposefully throughout. "Trouble in Paradise" takes on the fashion and entertainment industries' penchant for drama behind the scenes ("don't matter if your drinks are neat or on ice... don't matter if you're good or bad or mean or awfully nice"). The mid-tempo country-ish "You Ain't Big" mocks old entertainment industry notions that you're only a star if you've "made it" in heartland USA. Self-deprecation also appears in moderate doses, as is often the case with Wainwright. His vulnerability gives voice to our common fears and inadequacies, as he does here on the title track: "I'm not Hercules, and this is Herculean; and tomorrow I'll just be feeling the pain."

As always, Wainwright's compositions are purposeful, and the richly detailed arrangements throughout are contrasted with a few sparse piano-and-voice moments, such as "My Little You" and "Alone Time" — which also happen to be two of the more personal songs on the record, the former directed to his daughter and the latter about the necessity for self-renewal. Elsewhere, the strings-sweetened "Romantical Man" and the acoustic guitar waltz of "Peaceful Afternoon" probe contentment in longterm relationships. The latter offers more of Wainwright's wit: "But between sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean... I pray your face is the last I see on a peaceful afternoon."

From a "pop" standpoint, "Unfollow the Rules" is perhaps Wainwright's most accessible and engaging album since "Release the Stars" (2007). That's not to diminish some of his more challenging recent works — such as "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu" from 2010, a stark song cycle eulogizing his mother, who passed earlier that year. But where 2012's Mark Ronson-produced "Out of the Game" feels strangely subservient and resistant to contemporary pop aesthetics, "Unfollow the Rules" showcases Wainwright's songwriting first and foremost, as he pulls back the curtain to let us in. If we view this album as the bookend Wainwright has described it as, then "Unfollow the Rules" is a warm and inviting summation of his canon up to this point: The work of a serious artist who doesn't take himself too seriously, refining a compositional style that gives center stage to an imperfect but graceful humanity navigating family life, marriage, and middle age.

"Unfollow the Rules"
by Rufus Wainwright
$9.99 (digital), $12.99 (CD), $32.99 (vinyl)
Rufus Wainwright Store

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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