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'Unfollow the Rules': Baroque pop star Rufus Wainwright 'emulates the greats' on diverse and genre-bending LP

While all the traits of a classic Wainwright album are present here, including his gorgeous vocals, the album lends itself to subtlety instead of grandeur, making for something in between peaceful and nostalgic
Rufus Wainwright (Getty Images)
Rufus Wainwright (Getty Images)

Rufus Wainwright takes a step back from the grandeur of his previous releases to deliver a much softer, understated record 'Unfollow The Rules', out July 10. If you've been a fan of Wainwright for some time, this record might make you do a double-take. Having released seven albums already, including dabbling in classical opera and Shakespeare sonnets, Wainwright's brand of baroque pop has come to be his most recognizable asset.

His last album, 2016's 'Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets', featured adaptations of Shakespeare's sonnets as well as guest appearances from Helena Bonham Carter, Fiora Cutler, Peter Eyre, Carrie Fisher, Inge Keller, Siân Phillips, Anna Prohaska, William Shatner, Martha Wainwright and Florence Welch. The tribute album commemorated the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. Needless to say, Wainwright's music and artistry have been known to lend themselves to extravagance. But on 'Unfollow The Rules', it appears the artiste has decided to do precisely that: unfollow his own rules and any that may have been placed on him by fans and critics alike.

A slow-paced album, 'Unfollow The Rules' has all the hallmarks of a classic Wainwright record, including his stellar vocals, but he pairs this with a sense of weariness that makes it feel like almost uneventful but not necessarily in a bad way. It's a record that feels peaceful, like something you turn on while enjoying a gentle weekend without a worry or care to spare. Oddly enough, it feels less like a brand new record and more like a beloved classic that you dust off when you need to relive its sonic beauty. For Wainwright, this is his "second act."

Rufus Wainwright performs onstage at Los Angeles LGBT Center Celebrates 50th Anniversary With 'Hearts Of Gold' Concert & Multimedia Extravaganza at The Greek Theatre on September 21, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Speaking about the album, Wainwright shared with The Arts Desk that he hoped it would symbolize "a coming together of all the aspects of my life which have made me a seasoned artist," adding that he wished to "emulate the greats of yore whose second acts produced their finest work," pointing to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Simon. The album marks the artiste's return to pop for the first time in 8 years, following 2012's 'Out of the Game', and has been in progress for years, leading to a culmination of, as Wainwright puts it, "songs that bubbled up during my years doing operas."

The songs are individually stunning, but they also collectively form a beautiful piece of art. Opener 'Trouble in Paradise' kicks the album off with Wainwright's clear voice ringing through over the country melody, supported by some gorgeous choir harmonies. 'Damsel In Distress' is Wainwright's ode to Joni Mitchell, an artiste his mother forbade him from listening to because she thought her music was disrespectful to the folk traditions. But Wainwright's husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, being a huge Mitchell fan, brought her music into the artiste's life, and from that was born a song that pays homage to her musical stylings. Title track 'Unfollow the Rules' blends a bit of musical theater into a slow piano ballad, making for a track that would not be at all out of place in a Disney animated film.

Jörn Weisbrodt and Rufus Wainwright attend Los Angeles LGBT Center Celebrates 50th Anniversary With 'Hearts Of Gold' Concert & Multimedia Extravaganza at The Greek Theatre on September 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Lyrically, the album sees Wainwright tackle a rather wide range of topics, from 'You Ain't Big's commentary on the music industry to 'Peaceful Afternoon' and 'My Little You' which celebrate Wainwright's relationships with Weisbrodt and his nine-year-old daughter respectively, and from the subtle hangover anthem 'Early Morning Madness' to 'Hatred', which sees Wainwright address the growing unrest in the country. From classic baroque to pop to folk and country and beyond, and featuring themes from all areas of life, Wainwright certainly experiments widely on this record. One would imagine that would lead to an album as lavish as everything he has done thus far. Yet, Wainwright manages to pull off a beautifully subtle sound on this record, making for a record that reveals the artiste's musical genius in the most subtle of ways.