It was a pretty good year, 2007. Bruce Springsteen put out MAGIC,
an album of pure Pop Music which included his best song in twenty years, the effervescent Phil Spector homage “Girls
In Their Summer Clothes”; Joni Mitchell released her best record since 1991’s NIGHT RIDE HOME, the musically rich
and lyrically challenging SHINE; The Eagles, of all people, returned to the top of the charts with a double album, of all
things, playing and singing as if they’d never been away, especially Don Henley, who turned in his best song
since 1989’s “The Heart Of The Matter,” a gloriously melancholy piece of harmonic Pop called “Waiting
In The Weeds.” There was a comfort in listening to LONG ROAD OUT OF EDEN, MAGIC and SHINE, all three by great artists
who each proved they can still do it into their advancing years.
Further comfort came from north of the border when Geddy, Neil
and Alex dropped their strongest record in years, the very conceptually and sonically heavy SNAKES AND ARROWS. Even more amazing
was a terrific album from Paul McCartney, certainly his best work since ‘89’s FLOWERS IN THE DIRT, the shiny Pop
parade that was MEMORY ALMOST FULL, including a super lead-off single in the nostalgic “Ever Present Past” and
a five-song finale suite that ranks with the best work of his solo career. Add the ever-tremendous Chris Cornell crooning
his way through a perverse acoustic rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” highlighting a Pop Music
tour de force called CARRY ON, and you’d be hard pressed not to have thought Pop Music was not only still alive, but
kicking some kind of ass.
Yep, it was a pretty good year, 2007. Especially for a Pop Music
lover who has basically all but given up on Pop Music and its promised power to transcend, entertain, say it all, make you
want to dance, love, be alive, the whole shebang; or, at least Pop Music as it once was and was able to do all that stuff
I just listed, say in 1978 or 1984, or even 1994, the year Jeff Buckley unleashed GRACE on an unsuspecting and fortunate world.
Fitting then that my favorite album by a mile of 2007 is by whom I consider his rightful and karmic heir in the Pop Music
Pantheon: The heart-wrenchingly great Rufus Wainwright, who, with RELEASE THE STARS, has now topped my year-end list for a
second time, the first coming in 2003 with his masterful opus WANT ONE.
And although admittedly I don’t keep tabs on the full
spectrum of Pop as I once did, I am pretty damn sure that more purely gorgeous music was not released by anyone else all year.
At this point, I don’t hear anyone remotely near Rufus in terms of songwriting or record making, and only his buddy
Chris Cornell, whose terrific CARRY ON comes in second on my list, is exciting me as much vocally, especially on a little
chocolate chestnut of a tune my baby girls like to dance to entitled “Ghosts.” Check that one out if you have
three and a half minutes to spare.
Getting back though, this Rufus is a miracle, really. Specializing
in song craft and a sense of the dramatic that reaches back to the pre-Rock heyday of such luminaries as Cole Porter and the
Gershwins, not to mention Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein (or Hart) or even people as great as Stephen Sondheim
or Leonard Bernstein, Rufus might have all those guys beat in that he also incorporates a touch of good old Rock and Roll
in his rhythmic approach. Wow. Quite the hybrid.
Songs worthy of the theatre without all that schmaltz that sends
you hustling for the bathroom midway through the show; A voice like no other, a finely tuned reed instrument rising above
an orchestra, a gritty clarinet, possessing the phrasing and nuance of the masters of old, but filtered through the vocal
revolution of The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and of course, the guy he’s chasing,
the ever-haunting ghost that is Buckley. (No coincidence, then, that Rufus employs the great Matt Johnson behind the drum
kit on this album and onstage all over the world.) He knows the standard he’s shooting for, and has hit the mark now
five times in a row, a sad reflection on the all-too-soon passing of Jeff, who lived long enough only to produce one bona
fide masterpiece. GRACE, however, hangs like a daunting dartboard on the artistic compass of anyone who entered the game in
its formidable wake. Only Rufus has hit the bulls eye so consistently in the ensuing years since “Mojo Pin” and
“Last Goodbye” shook the world and gave vital hope to anyone still interested in a genre overrun
by vacuous pop and ridiculous hip-hop. Rufus, it should also be noted, is the main reason for the recent rejuvenating
of Elton John, whose THE CAPTAIN AND THE KID album owes no small debt to what Rufus is achieving every time out. What
is it with me and flamboyant piano players lately?
RELEASE THE STARS announces itself with the operatic
explosion of “Do I Disappoint You?,” moves directly into what could be his best song yet, the forlorn “Going
To A Town,” a cinematic cocktail of Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson - but all Rufus, mind you; coasts
through the twin gorgeousness of “Tiergarten” and “Nobody’s Off The Hook,” and swings confidently
into two of his best ever Pop Songs: the cheeky “Between My Legs,” in which the auteur sheds a lonely tear from
his third eye while Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant recites gay urban poetry like no one has ever heard over pure joyous bounce;
and the easy romp of “Rules and Regulations,” breezy as the changing into spring, in which Rufus recognizes that
he’s just like everyone else and there is a design to this whole ridiculous romance thing. Melodically, side one is
effortless and peerless. From my count, he’s using between six to ten more notes on the scale than anyone else. This
gives the melodies and his beautiful voice a great many interesting places to go.
Side two may be even better. “I’m giving up the
dove to the beast,” Rufus sings in “Not Ready To Love,” easily one of his most affecting ballads. The heartbreak
reality of “I’m giving up belief in the sky…” strikes deep in the heart of anyone who struggles with
the idea and/or whereabouts of God on an every day basis. Subtly heavy stuff hidden in the gorgeousness. And then the
best song on the album, and one of the most impressive compositions I’ve ever heard, follows in the amazing “Slideshow.”
Can’t say enough about this one, except that the melody in the chorus is something truly extraordinary: It’s NEW.
I don’t think anyone has ever written anything like it. The arc of the thing begins on the bottom tonic note of the
scale and before he’s done, Rufus has climbed like a madman up through a full octave and further to the fourth above
it, creating a Pop melody that runs an octave and a half up and down and yet makes it seem as natural as breathing. The
effect is as big as the rush of life itself. And if he isn’t featured prominently in this particular person’s
upcoming slideshow, Rufus, nearly breaking beneath the weight of his own hilarious neurotic tendencies, confesses he doesn’t
know what he’s going to do. There is nothing like comedic melodrama when it’s done right. In this, he has
achieved the pathos of a great Woody Allen film in a Pop Song. With the aching loveliness of the verses
juxtaposed against the desperate, winking pride of the chorus, “Slideshow” is one for the ages.
From here, it’s the baroque brilliance of “Tulsa,”
in which he somehow rhymes ‘Tulsa’ with ‘Oklahoma’ with ‘this is just a’ with ‘reminder’
(pronounced ‘remind-uh’) with ‘just in case ya…” Hysterical. The lonely and lilting “Sansoucci”
fills out the inspiring quota of unique, joyous Pop melodies contained here like luscious chocolates in a box, but
let us not overlook the breathtaking melancholy blues of “Leaving For Paris No. 2.” Rufus has got to get
out of the country, he’s so, to quote Joni, “strung out on another man,” so he’s heading for the most
romantic place he can think of. The tag line “Won’t you try and take care of yourself?” is so sweet and
good-natured, you gotta love this guy. He’s just a sweetheart, and he’s got to goods to back it up. And with the
goods comes a refreshing confidence. Rufus, unlike anyone in Pop Music today, knows how to TAKE HIS TIME with a song. Maybe
Prince at his height was capable of playing a heartbreak tune this slowly without losing your attention. But Rufus pulls it
off. Not an easy task either.
The album closes on a high note with a salute to Broadway, Hollywood
and Tin Pan Alley all wrapped up in a beautiful bow on the vivacious title track. But not only is he asking the powers that
be to release the stars from whatever crappy contracts they’re shackled by and let them be true artists, he’s
asking you and me to release the stars out of ourselves. Because we’re all stars, like Sly Stone has said. Everybody
is a star, and it’s high time we got down to working on how to mine that special energy inside ourselves and share it
with the world.
That’s what Rufus Wainwright is doing in spades on this,
my album of the year. And it was a pretty good year besides. Here’s to more like it. You can never have enough good