Liege and grief

Rufus Wainwright seeks safe haven
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FULL CIRCLE America is Rufus Wainwright's scorned lover–<\d>cum–<\d>doomed horse-opera hero on his new opus, Release the Stars (Geffen), making Wainwright's fifth album something of a postscript to the bipartite Want recordings (Dreamworks, 2003; Geffen, 2004). Departure comes as Wainwright turns his wry gaze beyond the cloister of his boudoir-proscenium to harness a polemical bent to his grandiose, lush, high-lonesome sound. This critic's much-cherished Canadian singer-songwriter plays spook versus spy on Stars, bringing his hallmarks of sweeping arrangements and droll lyrics to an acute examination of America, the turbulent country that has fallen from grace — and lost the right to stroke up under his verdant lederhosen.

Herein, the Lower 48 equally fuels the male songbird's romances and nightmares. MC Wainwright, the Queen of Hip-Popera, hits out this time with Neil Tennant as a suitably symbiotic and sympathetic producer for his Berlin record — not to mention the usual rogue's gallery, including Teddy Thompson, Jenni Muldaur, and Joan Wasser, as well as Richard Thompson and actress Siân Phillips. Tennant somewhat tempers the proceedings' opulence with rock and beat flourishes. Sure, Wainwright can be extravagant — and may well require an editor in years to come — but is this such a bad thang when his pimp hand is mighty mighty? The assured aesthetic with which Wainwright stepped into the arena in 1998, fully assembled, remains much in evidence, keeping real his cool pose as original glam gangsta and most legitimate pied piper of freak folk. Really, who's more fantastical and anachronistic than he?

If the album art's preoccupation with both the minutiae and monumental grandeur of German culture doesn't make disaffection plain enough, then song titles such as "Rules and Regulations" and the lovelorn "Leaving for Paris No. 2" aptly sketch alienation from the new west. Nowhere among his extant oeuvre has Wainwright displayed such naked political sentiment as in "Going to a Town"'s lyrics: "I'm so tired of America<\!s>/ ... I may just never see you again or might as well<\!s>/ You took advantage of a world that loved you well<\!s>/ I'm going to a town that has already been burned down<\!s>/ I'm so tired of you, America."

Not that our Rufus forgets the "I" in America. Check the gorgeous "Sanssouci," on which he claims, "I'm tired of writing elegies in general<\!s>/ I just want to be at Sanssouci tonight." Stars's highlights lie in the tension between the tattered utopian retreat of the titular Sanssouci and relatively universal songs like "Do I Disappoint You."

Wainwright is five for five with Stars, although only "Between My Legs" and the title track truly rival the Wants in their dizzying rigor. Ultimately, though Stars works from a jaded remove in not-so-fair Europa, Wainwright morphs into one of his strongest selves as a singing cowboy. He is the trickster western antihero lamenting the ruthless downward spiral of his formerly beloved range, spanning between 14th Street and Melrose.

Nobody's off the hook, as the song title and lyric go, on this flickering silver screen composed of sounds — not Texan tyrants, not hotel room trysters nor Wainwright himself. And if it's all a velvet bloodbath, rendered as one of the intensely homoerotic sequels to Sergio Corbucci's Django, so be it. For don't we all need a great big release in this land?

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