No one ever accused Rufus Wainwright of having a taste for understatement. The singer staked his reputation on constructing pop songs that sound like they were meant to be bellowed at the Met. Frilly orchestrations, soaring choruses and high-strung lyrics run rampant in his music.
He's no different in conversation. Talk to Wainwright about his new Album, Release the Stars, and he'll blithely declare it "an Olympic feat."
Get into his personal life and he'll describe himself, by turns, as being "a romantic Victorian poet, heartbreaker-type" and "a Judy Garland opera queen."
This stoked mix of camp and self-regard has turned Rufus Wainwright into one of the true love-him-or-hate-him figures in current music, not to mention modern pop's answer to Madame Bovary. Both roles should only intensify with Release the Stars. Melodically, it's Wainwright's most catchy and accessible work since his startling 1998 debut. But it also shoulders the most demented and adventurous arrangements of his career.
At first, Wainwright says, he wanted to make this CD a "bare-bones" affair, which is about as likely as Donald Trump pining to construct eco-friendly bungalows along the Hudson River. "I love the kinds of albums - by people like Elliot Smith - that get down to the crux of things," Wainwright says.
But once he started recording, he couldn't help himself from gorging on sound - especially given the location he chose to record in: Berlin. "Once I got to Germany, I was bombarded by romanticism," he says. "I saw it in everything."
Wainwright decided to record outside the States as a kind of protest against the Bush administration, and also as a response to what he views as the nation's insularity and arrogance. In the new "Going to a Town," he sings about wanting to go "to a place that has already been disgraced."
"I felt the need to be in a town that had risen from the ashes," he says. "In a place that has experienced defeat, the people are more interesting."
Besides, his boyfriend was living there at the time. (The pair, together for two years, now live in New York.) It's what the 33-year-old singer calls his first mature relationship. "I've had great loves in the past," he says. "But they never lasted more than two or three months. There was a period where I was seeing four or five different people. It was certainly athletic, but not necessarily fulfilling."
Wainwright - who has talked in the past about periods of promiscuity, drug use and a stint in rehab - feels that the new album captures him in a newly "pragmatic" phase. He credits the change to age. "At 33, you're at the delectable moment of intertwining robustness," he says. "You look good, you're in good health, it's the peak. On the other hand, it's all downhill from here."
In the album's striking opening number, "Do I Disappoint You," Wainwright sings about putting the drama in his life at a distance (all while pinning the words to sounds that could barely pack in more flights of fancy). The lyrics were inspired by a friend who didn't show up for a key Wainwright show at Carnegie Hall last June. For that concert, he tried to re-create an entire, historic 1969 concert by Judy Garland.
"For a gay man, that was like the wedding of the century," he says. "I was [ticked] off that she bailed. But it made this great song. So she's welcome to break my heart anytime."
Wainwright's staging of the Garland show epitomizes his ambition, as well as his connection to an earlier musical era. He maintains that link by birth, being the child of cult '60s singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. Wainwright's mother had an extra impact on the making of the new album, but for an unfortunate reason. During recording, she faced a serious health scare that required major surgery.
"It was the most horrifying time of my life," Wainwright says. "When a parent is sick, it's tectonic plates shifting."
She's fine now, but the singer says the scare gave the creation of his album a special urgency. Wainwright drew a more positive kind of inspiration from the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, whom he hired as the project's "adviser." "I loved to pick his brain: It's one of the most varied jungles on the planet," Wainwright says. "He's equally aware of high and low culture - of the museum and the street."
The same can be said of Wainwright, who has always balanced campy exaggeration with erudite precision. He'll explore that dichotomy further in a coming project that seems inevitable: his first operatic score. Also on the horizon is a live album capturing the Garland event.
For someone who claims it's all downhill from here, Wainwright seems eager to scale more creative heights. Similarly, for someone in his first grown-up relationship, Wainwright's lyrics still feature many expressions of ravenous, erotic yearning.
"I will always have yearning," Wainwright declares. "I will never be free of the shackles of desire."
Rufus Wainwright will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 17 as part of the True Colors tour with Cyndi Lauper. Call 410-547-SEAT or go to ticketmaster.com.