After Leonard Cohen died in November, I re-watched the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. This 2005 film combines performances from two tribute concerts and interviews with artists participating in the events as well as with Leonard Cohen himself. Rufus Wainwright stands out performing alongside his sister, Martha Wainwright, and his mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, among artists including Beth Orton, Nick Cave, and Jarvis Cocker. Rufus Wainwright contributes compelling, singular takes on the Cohen classics “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” on stage while sharing charming stories of his personal relationship with one of his idols in interviews. Watching the film again, I reflected on Rufus Wainwright’s deep, passionate, and personal connection to the craft of songwriting. Wainwright’s third album, Want One, released just two years prior to this film, captures him at his creative peak and delivers his defining artistic statement.
The son of folk music stars Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright drew from his parents’ talents but set off in a direction beyond the boundaries of folk music. Wainwright’s performances in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man yield a representative impression of his abilities by ranging from knowing and playful to soaring and anthemic to heartfelt and wistful. The fourteen songs on Want One cover very similar territory, but allow Wainwright to delve into the fearless, stylistic voraciousness that has come to define him as an artist. “Oh What a World” opens the album with a distant, hummed melody before blossoming into a sprawling rumination on modern life that quotes Ravel’s Boléro as it climaxes. Up next, “I Don’t Know What It Is” settles into a more restrained mode of pop maximalism while Wainwright considers the necessity of exploring the unknown. Supported by minimalist orchestral accompaniment on “Vibrate,” Wainwright delights in pitching modern anachronisms like “my phone’s on vibrate for you” and “I tried to dance to Britney Spears” against the staid, classical backdrop. The next song, “14th Street,” launches into a full-throated ballad that begs the question, “But why’d you have to break all my heart / Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?” This show stopper supplies Want One’s centerpiece while functioning as a family reunion with Martha Wainwright singing backing vocals on the charging chorus and Kate McGarrigle contributing the song’s plaintive banjo outro. “11:11,” begins with a hushed mandolin figure and unfolds into a bracing tempo as Wainwright takes stock of the world he finds upon waking up late one morning; it endures as the album’s catchiest, most appealing moment. “Dinner at Eight” closes out the album on an emotionally resonant note as Wainwright grapples with the aching, confounding conflict at the core of a doomed love while his tender piano playing expands into ornate swells of strings.
A year after Want One, Wainwright followed up with another release from the same sessions, Want Two, and although it contained the wonderfully overblown nine-minute romp, “Old Whore’s Diet,” it lacked the cohesion, quality, and vision of its predecessor. Over the last several years, Wainwright’s adventurousness has taken him in a number of directions including a song-for-song tribute to Judy Garland’s 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, and last year’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. With Want One, Wainwright composed a lasting testament to his extraordinary, idiosyncratic love of songwriting and performance and earned himself a place alongside his teachers and heroes.-John Parsell