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Forever a child of the '70s, Rufus Wainwright operates at the high end of pop

The Rufus on Fire

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The only thing wrong with Rufus Wainwright's new full-length, Out of the Game, is the fact that there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Out of the Game documents a musician operating at the high end of pop, and that can seem like mere facility to aesthetes who worship pop's severely delimited aspects. Yet Wainwright's new record doesn't just pay tribute to the supercharged studio craft perfected by such '70s artists as Harry Nilsson — if anything, Wainwright improves upon his models. Adepts of the limited approach may find Wainwright's harmonic and melodic savvy overwrought, and his amused view of the world a campy game, but that's their loss. Wainwright knows what music can do, and he knows how to do it.

Out of the Game builds upon the achievements of Wainwright's previous records, and it may be his most focused statement since 2001's Poses. Now 39, Wainwright released his debut full-length in 1998, with Rufus Wainwright establishing the singer as a successor to Nilsson, Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. His songs used the conventions of the literate and harmonically sophisticated studio-pop those artists favored in their early '70s work. Produced by Mark Ronson, Wainwright's new music continues to mine that rich vein, but Out of the Game explores the conventions of late '70s pop music.

"Mark Ronson and I were keen to capture not so much the sound of the '70s, but more the philosophy," Wainwright says. "You know, that it's about live performance and also about recording on a kind of organic level. We were cutting tape, and we were using old mics and putting together a solid backing band that played on all the songs — they comprised members of The Dap-Kings."

A discursive artist capable of making music that wanders through blind alleys, Wainwright benefits from the focused production Ronson brings to Out of the Game. "Perfect Man" sports soul-influenced guitar licks, and you may hear traces of the influence of Genesis circa Trick of the Tail. Meanwhile, "Rashida" is built upon piano triplets that turn subtly dissonant, with Mick Ronson-style guitar licks. "Rashida" sounds like a combination of David Bowie, Queen and 10cc, but the effect transcends pastiche.

"What's interesting is that though we're still in our 30s, we don't really remember the '70s that well," says Wainwright. "But we do have certain memories from that period, and we were born in that decade. It was the first music we ever heard — that's where our minds were first turned on to the sounds of song. I think we own it, actually."

Out of the Game features some of Wainwright's most soulful singing, and he proves himself a first-rate lyricist throughout. If the keyboards are sometimes cheesy and ooze over the proceedings like Velveeta melt on blue-corn chips, the mock-classical structure of "Montauk" isn't idle affectation: "One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad trying to be funny / And see your other dad seeing through me."

It's a record bursting with the kind of musical detail that characterized such '70s records as Harry Nilsson's Knnillssonn and Cass Elliot's The Road Is No Place for a Lady. What makes Wainwright a pop artist is his sense of humor — he's never afraid to be crass or obvious, if that suits his purpose. Yet his sense of how far a song structure can be pushed has never been surer.

As he says of his '70s childhood, "I lived with my mom, although my dad would play certain records when I saw him occasionally. She loved The Staple Singers and Library of Congress field recordings and Bach. She was always kinda into high-end stuff. But then a Fleetwood Mac record would show up. Just as long as it was completely amazing, and not at all kitsch. She had no camp element whatsoever — I kinda brought that to the table."

A product of the "Me Decade," Wainwright has never given into the impulse to make, well, kitsch — his songs suggest a mode of self-definition that never excludes other people, or regards music as empty formalism. A very accomplished pop composer, Wainwright sees the value of other music.

"Classical music is my true love, in terms of the listening experience," says Wainwright. "For me, going to the opera is like going to church. But I'm not a classical musician. I am not trained on the level of an opera singer or a violinist, or even a lot of the composers of today. But now I find that to be a real asset, because there is a kind of dictatorial and somewhat brainwashed factory that exists in the classical world. For composition, it can be a bit sticky, because you end up sounding like everybody else."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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