After a long absence from the spotlight, Rufus Wainwright is back in all of his swooning glory for his seventh studio release. Throughout the ironically named “Out of the Game,” Wainwright manages to live up to the standards of his lofty trio of inspirations –– Elton John, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie –– as the tracks possess the less-than-subtle blush of their influence.
Wainwright’s style is a bit too far in the pocket of authentically vintage to please the masses, but if you are looking for something genuinely different and artistically sound, here you have it. Wainwright’s affinity for classic pop melodies and breezy progressions shines through as he turns out track after track of dreamy artistic confections. Mixed in with the air-whipped classic fare, though, are some stunningly strong compositions.
The first half of the album features Wainwright in his niche, cranking out warm, artsy ballads and crooning alongside chirpy female vocals and instrumental flourishes. The album opens with its title track, “Out of the Game,” which sets the thematic tone of this work. Backed with a classic guitar twang and strong female vocals, Wainwright reflects on his position in a more mature adulthood, with somewhat off-kilter musings of a younger, reckless generation: “Suckers, does your mama know what you’re doin’?” Similar in its languid, familiar feel is “Jericho,” which is colored by a strong brass section and surprisingly killer guitar slides to break up the calm.
A standout here is “Rashida,” which positively glows with that vintage pop swoon. Complete with deliciously classic stutter-step piano chords, smoky bass and smoother-than-smooth saxophone, this track is so vintage it could have come straight out of the ’60s, especially when the background singers enter with their doo-wop vibe. Even the lyrics stay true to the throwback feel, when Wainwright croons “It’s been a while since I’ve gone a-begging / So very, very long.” To top it all off, this song features a ridiculously sweet falsetto finale. Wainwright follows this up with a sweet chaser –– “Barbara” is a meandering, synth-twirling treat about “drinking rosé in the rain.”
Another gleaming standout is “Respectable Dive,” which boasts a smoldering country feel with its loping piano and disarmingly slow build. Written about clinging to a love that is slipping away, Wainwright croons, “Baby, I love you / And I do not want to lose you.” The lyrics are simple but Wainwright’s vocal command is what gives this song such flavor.
“Out of the Game” takes a serious turn with “Montauk” (Wainwright’s current home), which in spite of its hauntingly classic sound has a strikingly contemporary message. Written for his baby daughter, Viva, this track explores his daughter’s future dealing with their modern family unit: “One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad playing piano / And see your other dad wearing glasses / I hope that you will want to stay / For a while.” Sung beautifully over a rolling piano riff, this track is simply striking, not only for its lyricism and glowing arrangement, but for its sickeningly sweet sentiment. Wainwright is just a dad hoping his daughter will be happy to come home to her two fathers when she is grown. “Don’t worry,” he assures her, “I know you’ll have to go.”
In this similar vein of heartbreakingly honest music is “Song of You,” a love song written for Wainwright’s partner and sung beautifully alongside a classically slow drum kick and a gliding synth, and “Candles,” a mournful ode to the artist’s late mother. Sentiment aside, the song stands on its own as a musical gem. The haunting arrangement of a lonely, acoustic guitar, simple piano chords, the unique pining of an accordion, and the strangely fitting and intermittent snare, is a perfect backdrop for Wainwright’s mournful voice. That being said, this song could do without the strange dirge-like bagpipes at the end, which leaves an unsettling aftertaste when the album fades to black.
“Out of the Game” makes it clear that Wainwright is certainly anything but. With its shamelessly vintage flair and Wainwright’s masterful command of vocal aesthetics, this album is something special. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, “Out of the Game” is a strangely refreshing piece of vintage gold.
Rating: 4 out of 5