‘Out of the Game’ Doesn’t Highlight Wainwright’s Talent
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk about a new “British soul invasion,” brought on by the likes of Adele, Leona Lewis, and Florence Welch. As these soulful ladies enjoy their time in the spotlight, it’s worth remembering other musicians who have been exploring the same territory without such recognition. One such artist is Rufus Wainwright, another Brit, who since 1998 has made a career out of lush, layered, soul-infused pop. On his latest release, Out of the Game, Wainwright serves up another helping. Unfortunately, it’s an inconsistent effort: despite some undeniably effective pop melodies and clever lyrics, the album suffers from songs that either play it too safe or are too inscrutable and odd for their own good.
On its best tracks, however, Out of the Game strikes just the right balance. One such song is the opening track, which shares the album’s title. The song features an appealingly old-fashioned soul vibe combined with lyrics that are at once snarky and heartfelt. Wainwright says the song was inspired by “exhaustion” and his feeling of alienation from a new, younger generation of musicians. Both inspirations are evident in the song, as Wainwright sings, “I’m out of the game / I’ve been out for a long time” before building to a crescendo in the chorus, with Wainwright and his backup singers howling, “Look at you, look at you, look at you / Suckers, does your mama know what you’re doing?”
Wainwright keeps up the momentum with the next two tracks. “Jericho” is an enjoyable pop tune built around the metaphor of a lover as stubborn and unchanging as the walls of Jericho. The backing vocals are perfectly integrated with Wainwright’s voice, which soars to expressive highs. “Rashida” is distinguished by its jazzy undertones, self-referential lyrics, and sarcastic delivery. Wainwright sings, “I got the outfit for the party but you’ve taken away the invitation / And I’d like to thank you Rashida for doing this / And giving me a reason to write a song.” It’s also, apparently, addressed directly to the actress Rashida Jones, who was for a time the fiance of the album’s producer, Mark Ronson.
This is just one instance in the album of Wainwright drawing very direct inspiration from real events and people in his life. But what works in “Rashida” is problematic elsewhere. The song “Barbara” is written for Wainwright’s publicist and friend of the same name, but its personal significance doesn’t translate into an effective song, due to trite lyrics and an unmemorable melody. “Montauk” may be the album’s biggest misfire. The song is addressed to Wainwright’s daughter and imagines her visiting his home in Montauk, but it’s too personal for its own good. With lyrics that are either too literal or too cryptic, it fails to achieve the sense of universality that truly affecting music demands. Moreover, the song is sleepy and repetitive, with extremely high but monotonous vocals that come off as more creepy than touching.
Out of the Game is ultimately an album composed of parts of varying quality meshed together into an unseemly whole. On a typical stretch of the album, Wainwright goes from experimenting with pulsing electronic keyboard strokes in the atypical “Bitter Tears” to the simple, slow, and forgettable “Respectable Dive” to the upbeat and catchy “Perfect Man.” There seems to be nothing stringing all this together, with little discernible connection between the album’s disparate parts. Thankfully, Wainwright closes things out on a high note with “Candles.” This nearly eight-minute song starts softly, Wainwright’s voice tinged with sadness as he sings, “I tried to do all that I can / But the churches have run out of candles.” Slowly, the song builds up new layers of instrumentation, including accordion and bagpipes, without ever overpowering the sincere sentiment of the lyrics. It’s a reminder that Wainwright isn’t out of the game yet—but on his new album, he’s not exactly on his game either.