Rufus Wainwright opens his latest album -- make that magnum opus -- with a simple yet critical question: "Do I disappoint you in just being human?"
The song is "Do I Disappoint You," the album is "Release the Stars" (out today on Geffen), and my answer is a resounding "yes."
It's hard to understand and digest the histrionics of "Do I Disappoint You." Wainwright hasn't written a pop song, but rather he's composed a triumphant, all-out John Williams film score. Roaring "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs trampling power lines wouldn't be out of place on the video; when the song ends after nearly five minutes, you'll wonder what happened.
It didn't used to be this way. Wainwright has always deftly married his keen pop sensibility with his operatic tendencies, starting with the swelling strings on "Foolish Love," the first track on his self-titled 1998 debut. Since then, his aspirations (and budgets) have gotten bigger -- but, unfortunately, not always better.
The albums "Want One" and "Want Two" cast Wainwright as a self-professed "gay messiah" clad in medieval armor. And last year, his re-creation of Judy Garland's fabled 1961 Carnegie Hall concert was an extravagant reminder of just how peerless Wainwright truly is.
There's little doubt that "Release the Stars" is Wainwright's notion of the art he was born to craft. It's an ornate, dizzying affair, where all his interests and talents collide in one brazen gesture. It's impressive in scope, but where does that leave the listener? Possibly with a headache.
As my mother would say, it's all just a little too big for its britches. In place of songcraft and subtlety, there's grandeur and bombast. It's too bad that the bloated orchestration obscures Wainwright's finer talents, namely his innate sense of melody and vocal flourishes. We get glimmers of them, though, from the whimsical chord changes on "Tiergarten" to his spare and affecting vocals on the sad-eyed farewell "Leaving for Paris No. 2."
"Going to a Town" is one of Wainwright's best songs in years, pointedly expressing his disillusionment with current events. "I'm going to a town that has already been burnt down/ I'm going to a place that has already been disgraced," he sings before sharpening his criticism: "I'm so tired of America." It's the restraint that packs a punch.
But then the album is off to meander at its own pace. "Nobody's Off the Hook" ambles about in circles, with heavily bowed strings backing up Wainwright at every turn. The back-to-back pairing of "Not Ready to Love" and "Slideshow" is a rueful detour through smooth '70s soft rock.
Yes, that's a snippet of "The Phantom of the Opera" at the end of "Between My Legs," playing over a cryptic passage read by veteran British actress Siân Phillips. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the most melodramatic of musical composers, quoted on a Rufus Wainwright album. Great.
It's amazing the power a straightforward melody can wield amid this clutter. Sounding like an outtake from "Poses," his 2001 sophomore album, "Sanssouci" has a perfect bit of sudsy effervescence, enough so that you can forgive the trilling piccolo and misplaced Spanish guitar solo junking up the accompaniment.
Self-produced with an executive production assist from Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, "Release the Stars" is the kind of album whose demos I would love to hear, free of symphonic trappings. Maybe then Wainwright's intentions (and I'm sure they're good) would be better articulated.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.