Back in 1998, Rufus Wainwright somehow managed to make every critic on the face of the planet trip over themselves in desparate high praise.
Like Kelly Willis’ What I Deserve from 1999, Wainwright’s eponymous debut yielded many more accolades than it probably deserved.
I speak only for myself, but Wainwright struck me as impenetrable and overly smart, his nasal deadpan sounding like the alien love child of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Japanese rock diva Shiina Ringo.
But Wainwright struck a chord with listeners, and even if he didn’t topple the Backstreet Boys from their chart-topping perch, the very few people who bought his first album really, really loved it.
So now Wainwright returns with Poses, and somewhat self-mockingly, he told Rolling Stone his aim with this album was to sell out.
He did, and thank goodness for that.
Poses lives up to the hype critics heaped on him three years ago. It’s a solid collection of lush, dramatic pop songs that veers from crooner ditties to quasi-folk pop.
When Wainwright “sells out,” he does so marvelously, nailing radio-friendly hooks that scream “injustice” if program directors summarily ignore these songs.
“California” feels like an update of Burt Bacharach’s “San Jose” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, only with jangle guitar rock that Michael Stipe would have done if he came out a decade earlier.
“Grey Gardens” is a straight-forward pop song, the kind with an immediate melody and enough restraint to come across as revelatory and not flashy.
On other tracks, Wainwright still indulges in the brainy, literate muse that made his first album somewhat inaccessible, but this time around, he’s gotten moodier, holding back on hitting people over the head with his songwriting prowess.
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, “Rebel Prince” and “Greek Song” sound like excerpts from a work-in-progress stage production — three-minute minature dramas with their own start, middle and ending.
“The Consort” builds slowly, depending on long notes to stretch the momentum of the song to a comfortable pace.
And on a cover of his dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy,” Wainwright cleverly confounds the song’s theme. The title should indicate how it might be construed but ultimately isn’t.
In all, Poses shows Wainwright being smarter with his smartness. He’s letting his music and not his talent speak for him, and what emerges is a beautiful album that makes doubters into believers.