Rufus Wainwright - Want One - Review
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critics' view

Is it possible to make music too big for mere stereo speakers? Nearly every moment of Rufus Wainwright's third album, Want One, begs that question by finding an expansive sound to match the singer-songwriter's oversized emotions. Since his 1998 debut, Wainwright has continually expanded the borders of his previously unclaimed musical turf, drawing on pre-rock-'n'-roll pop songs and classical music to create a sound all his own. Alone, he would kill in a piano bar, with his expressive voice and a gift for phrasing that allows that voice to ring. But Wainwright sounds most comfortable in the lush settings of his albums, and Want One blows his music up to Cinemascope size.

Made after the months following Sept. 11, which led to an unexpected encounter with sobriety after time spent in what Wainwright described to The New York Times as "gay hell," Want One captures Wainwright in an inventory-taking mood, trading the serial heartbreaks of 2001's Poses for a search for permanence. "I try to dance / Britney Spears / I guess I'm getting on in years," goes a line from "Vibrate," which turns the anticipated call of a lover into a tenuous, distrustful wish for monogamy. Backed by nothing but a handful of strings, it's an uncharacteristically fragile moment, but Wainwright never has trouble letting his feelings cut through the layers of even his most lushly arranged songs.

Recorded at Woodstock's Bearsville studios in sessions so fruitful that Wainwright has promised a Want Two in the near future, the album's cast includes everyone from The Band's Levon Helm to Wainwright mom Kate McGarrigle to–on the album-opening "Oh What A World"–an orchestra playing "Bolero." Wainwright's music sounds perfectly in tune with the restlessness of Ravel's swelling romanticism, but also a little exhausted by it. As the general mood suggests and the title track confirms, Want One explores the difficulty of determining what really matters. Wainwright sounds a little lost when he demands "give me heaven or hell, Calais or Dover" on "I Don't Know What It Is," but it's clearly the bittersweet determination to find his place that that keeps him singing.

Keith Phipps
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