There are some albums you love from the first moment you hear them. The first song starts, and you’re immediately transported. It’s as if the music is wired directly to your spine and you wonder how you could ever have lived without hearing it. From the very first moment I heard Rufus Wainwright’s voice, on a cut from his first self-titled album, I absolutely hated it.
“What the fuck?” I probably said out loud, listening to (if I remember correctly) “April Fools” on the NPR website. “The hell is this shit?” This was the guy they were praising to the heavens? This nasal voice with the rasp in it? I hated it. I HATED it. I had to hear it a second time, just to marvel at how much I hated it.
Sure enough, I hated it the second time too. Goddamn. I couldn’t stop there, though. I had to play it a third time.
I forget how many times I repeated the song. But you see where this is going. By the time I thought maybe I could stop…I didn’t hate it anymore.
This happens to me a lot. I certainly don’t fall in love with everything I initially hate, but a lot of times my initial strong reaction ends up just having been surprise, disorientation, the discomfort of perspective that needs to be widened. A lot of bands I’ve really liked over the years started out by turning me off: the Cure, R.E.M., Julian Cope, Bryan Ferry, the Auteurs, to name a few. My reflex of saying “no” before saying “yes” is a longtime bad habit, which I’ve only started to break after years of improv conditioning to say “yes and” by default.
So it turned out that I liked Rufus Wainright a lot, and though I’ve never quite gotten used to the unique timbre of his voice, it is if nothing else technically excellent, expressive, and well-suited to his songs.
These days Poses and Want One are almost equal in my affections. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is pretty easy to love, and might have slipped right past my defenses if it had been on that first album. Everyone can relate to a song about craving what’s terrible for you, but I always get a sense of relief at hearing it from Rufus. If he can’t leave a bag of jellybeans unfinished, my internal illogic is probably thinking, the rest of us should probably forgive ourselves too. He chases it with the taut-but-reclining homoeroticism of “Greek Song,” then a couple of even slower tracks before stepping on the gas with a celebration of “California” (“and my new grandma Bea Arthur”). “Grey Gardens” is one of the major highlights for me, a gorgeous convocation of the eponymous documentary and Death in Venice, along with Rufus’s cover of his father’s “One Man Guy,” in his hands a sly fakeout (“I’m a one man guy, and that one man…is me”). It’s an album of fantasy, as the title implies; genuine, heartfelt emotion filtered through fictional situations and metaphors.
I said “almost equal.” If I’m honest, I think Want One is probably slightly higher in my esteem these days, maybe because it’s a little less fictional and more direct, maybe because the highlights on it are so much more vibrant and full-throated: “I Don’t Know What It Is,” “Movies of Myself,” “Go or Go Ahead,” and “11:11,” not to mention the stunning, lush, Ravelesque “Oh What a World” and the confronting-Dad closer “Dinner at Eight.” The other tracks, though, are certainly less memorable than the others on Poses, and unfortunately they were the models for things to come.
Starting with the “second half,” Want Two, I suddenly fell out of love with Rufus, and though I’ve bought most of his albums since and tried dutifully to hear the magic, I can’t make it out. Whatever lit me on fire with that first album and stoked it to a roaring blaze on the second and third has all but fizzled out. Perhaps that voice has become too familiar, the experience no longer new and mind-altering. It’s a strange thing to say about a talent who’s so classical in his approach, that once his old-school showmanship sounded so fresh and exciting that I retreated from it in shock, but there you have it.
Still, you never know. Perhaps somewhere down the line — because this is a man who will be writing songs until he dies, and he’s my age, so we’ll probably be around for about the same amount of time — I’ll hear a Rufus Wainwright song out of the blue, and it will jolt me to my very core, send lightning down my spine, and I’ll fall in hate with his fascinating music all over again.
Curve are one of the bands whose stock has gradually but steadily risen with me over the years, to the point where they’re one of my favorites even though I barely listened to them at first. Gift in particular is an album I love more and more the more I hear it: “Want More Need Less,” “Hung Up,” and especially the chilling “My Tiled White Floor” are as thrilling as anything they’ve ever done. I’m not sure how I missed out writing about them, but that’s the downside of doing a project where the role of the music in your life at a particular time trumps how much you love it now. I’d say I listen to Curve far more these days than Rufus Wainwright, for example, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2001.
The Strokes, Is This It
A completely flawless debut album by a band I have tried and failed to continue to love. I still like individual songs (“You Only Live Once” is brilliant) and, surprisingly, I think Julian Casablancas’ solo record is really enjoyable, but none of the other Strokes albums have stuck in my memory at all. Still, when a list of the album’s highlights equals its tracklisting, you have to celebrate the achievement.
Luke Haines, The Oliver Twist Manifesto
The day after Halloween, I got laid off for the second (and so far last) time in my professional career. It was far more traumatic than the first time, and lasted for six months. I was probably listening to this album for at least some of the time with its is-he-serious? calls for pop music strikes and lyrics like “[if] Kim Wilde is sex, [then] I’m Tallulah Bankhead,” but I can’t ever remember drawing a connection between the lyric “Never work again” and my situation. Probably a good thing: instead of the imperative it’s meant as, I might have taken it as a prediction of doom.
- Remy Zero, The Golden Hum
- Luke Haines, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry soundtrack
- Low, Things We Lost in the Fire
- Ladytron, 604
- Turin Brakes, The Optimist LP
- Nick Cave, No More Shall We Part
- David Byrne, Look Into the Eyeball
- Depeche Mode, Exciter
- Björk, Vespertine
- Garbage, Beautifulgarbage