It feels like the world took a long time to figure out Rufus Wainwright. When ‘Want One’ and ‘Want Two’ were released in 2003 and 2004 respectively, Wainwright was fuelled by an often merciless and driven ambition, yet he achieved only limited success beyond a cult following and celebrity patronage from the likes of Elton John. It was certainly nothing to be sniffed at, but someway short of where his music was intended to resonate. Back then, no one wrote songs like you find on ‘Want One’ and ‘Want Two’, with each unique song filled with a 1970s-vintage grandiosity.
Now, it feels like the world has more or less caught on, and maybe, just maybe, on the evidence tonight, Wainwright himself has grown more accustomed to the ambitious task he set himself with the two ‘Want’ volumes. Tonight’s two performances – one of each album – as part of the 2023 Proms, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Sarah Hicks, is what the ‘Want’ albums always deserved and perhaps what Wainwright envisaged when he wrote the pieces on the frontier of his thirties. This is the playground of lush strings; full arrangements; epic and swooping moments of beauty. That Wainwright, and his songs, revelled in it, was completely justified.
A lot of ‘Want One’ is about ageing, if not gracefully then uncomfortably. ‘Vibrate’ is the pinnacle of this, an adrift Wainwright suddenly completely disconnected from the modern world, feeling old and useless. Its copious allusions to boyhood were delivered tonight with such angst that you could almost hear the sound of his fingernails clinging onto the memory of his youth in the last days of his twenties. One wonders how he feels now, two decades older, as he delivers its lyrics about electroclash and dancing to Britney Spears.
‘Go Or Go Head’ was performed with breathtaking vitality, following a brief pause wherein Wainwright casually acknowledged and permitted reference to his own “procrastinating genius” as he struggled with a microphone stand. His self-congratulations were entirely valid. That song has always promised largesse and boldness, but accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra it became the towering, vast song it always needed to be. The strident strings on ‘Movies Of Myself’ took on an almost Studio 54 disco swagger, while the understated opening piece from ‘Want One’, ‘Oh What A World’ revealed itself as owing a substantial debt to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, and, in turn, the visceral streets of Manhattan from Wainwright’s early career.
‘Natasha’, a song Wainwright admitted to being nervous about performing, was executed perfectly, its quintessential anguish laid out in raw and unshakeably open terms. ‘Dinner At Eight’, a song about Wainwright’s difficult relationship with his father, Loudon Wainwright III, tonight carried a defiant acceptance. Its positioning at the end of ‘Want One’ is important. It acts as closure, a signifier that the turbulent emotions Wainwright was exorcising earlier on the album are now sealed, boxed-off and put aside.
In this context, his second Proms performance of the evening, of ‘Want Two’ highlighted the sense of cathartic freedom which informed its writing. It is almost as if, having exhumed all that stuff in the first album, he was able to let his hair down and go to different places.
‘Want Two’, is, he admitted before a cheerful ‘Crumb By Crumb’, a much, much darker affair – brooding, louche, filled with drugs, debauchery, early mornings walking through the city streets after falling in and out of lust, and, in ‘Gay Messiah’, a song about eulogising seventies porn stars. The performance of ‘Want Two’ began with a rendition of ‘Angus Dei’ that was somehow more violently dissonant and atonal than its studio counterpart, with intense squalls of scraped violin cutting through the austere ambience of the Royal Albert Hall.
Even a piece like ‘Sister’, written for his sibling Martha and presented tonight like it should have been performed at a Viennese court, carried a threat of conflict in spite of its outwardly rambunctious joyfulness. ‘The One You Love’, one of the strongest tracks on ‘Want Two’ tonight sounded seedy and sinister, a long way removed from its purportedly romantic subject matter.
It wasn’t all dark, though. Poignancy adorned the performance of ‘Memphis Skyline’, written for Jeff Buckley, and tonight offered plaintively to “everyone who’s gone somewhere else”. The introspective ‘This Love Affair’ was more or less completely derailed by a hilarious introduction, wherein Wainwright described losing his luggage before a performance in Chicago and having to buy whatever he could find in a local mall.
The set closed with a rendition of ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ with Jake Shears delivering the lines originally recorded by ANOHNI. With sublime orchestral arrangements, the song felt like some sort of palm court big band tropicalia dance number – until the obtuse and irrepressible lyrical subject matter reminded you of its true sentiment.
The encore to both the ‘Want One’ and ‘Want Two’ concerts was ‘Going To A Town’ from the follow-up album, ‘Release The Stars’. If an artist is career must inevitably be boiled down to a single song, this has undoubtedly become Wainwright’s big number. The sense of abject disappointment and the song’s cynical sideswipe at a broken America was amplified by an enveloping arrangement that offered no resolution or relief whatsoever.
The concerts were an emotional experience for Wainwright. He recounted how ‘Want One’ was met with indifference when it was released, causing him a crisis of confidence that seems hard to reconcile with an artist appearing to be so self-assured. Just as ‘Want One’ provided closure on his growing pains, these concerts provided closure on a period where his music was more or less fully misunderstood, and a powerful testament to his idiosyncratic vision of pop music.
Words: Mat Smith