Release the Stars, the fifth album from Rufus Wainwright, follows the swooping, colorful brushstrokes painted by his previous compendium of Want One and Want Two. Those albums, recorded together in 2003 but released as subsequent pieces like acts of a play, are expansive and emotional, plunging the depths of the young songwriter’s painful and well-chronicled descent into drug addiction and relationship nightmares. The music from the Want sessions mimics the strain and redemptive release of Wainwright’s emotional course: The songs are at turns brooding, ambitious, scathing, ostentatious, funny, and ultimately — as depicted on Want One’s “Go or Go Ahead” and “Oh What a World” — glorious and cathartic.
Release the Stars takes equally from the many sides that listeners have become accustomed to. There’s the deliberate, heartbreaking storyteller (“Sanssouci”), the subtle commentary (the gorgeous “Going to a Town”), and of course the ultra-campy chamber pop (“Between My Legs”). His musical-theater histrionics are, for the most part, kept in check. Sometimes this is okay — it keeps opener “Do I Disappoint You” modest (for Wainwright). But with other songs, like “Slideshow,” with its horribly clunky refrain (“And I hope that I am/ prominently featured/ in your next slideshow”), there’s all the bombast but none of the discretion. Strip away the orchestration (programmed and conducted by Marius De Vries) and the circus of instruments and vocal density becomes just that: dense
On Stars standout “Tulsa,” Wainwright, armed with a piano and minimal orchestration, decries his adoration for an anonymous performer (some say the Killers’ Brandon Flowers). What’s so remarkable about this song is its relative simplicity; the deliberate, pseudo-Vaudevillian piano line shines because it’s sublimated under the story of the song, which Wainwright tells with true emotion and characteristic acerbic wit. Tracks like “Nobody’s Off The Hook,” the title cut, and even “Between my Legs” (though the latter’s sexual innuendo is overstated) are highlights for the same reasons: They are pop songs bathed in bombast, performed by someone with a vocal and emotional range stronger than his contemporaries and who’s smart enough to know how to pull the whole thing off.
The real problem with Stars is that the most poignant, affecting songs sound like natural, and somewhat neutral, follow-ups to his other songs. They’re all good, but not necessarily original. The title track echoes Want One‘s “14th Street.” “Tulsa” is great, but no better than “Little Sister” from Want Two or “Beauty Mark” from his self-titled 1998 debut. The orchestration is elaborate but often halfhearted or slapdash; it’s beautiful but doesn’t always serve its purpose of providing support role to Wainwright’s soaring vocals and old-Hollywood stories. With such a bright talent and impressive catalog, Wainwright has set his own bar extremely high. For someone with so much talent, it’s expected he offer a new act — not an intermission — in the play.