Rufus Wainwright

Poses (DreamWorks)

The best songs are the ones that deliver you to the brink of despair and then rescue you from it. Good songs are magic in that way: Simultaneously malevolent and beneficent creations, they can slice you open with one hand and bandage your cuts with the other. Good songwriters are perennially in short supply. There're always plenty of adequate ones, of course, but an adequate song is no more acceptable than an adequate adolescence or an adequate marriage. The things worth relishing in life, such as good songs, shouldn't just be OK -- they should rule. Real songwriters ought to be able to manipulate listeners with the dexterity of power-crazed psychiatrists tweaking their patients' emotions like knobs on a mixing board. It's only every so often, maybe once every 10 or 20 years, that you come across a songwriter of such dazzling talent and obvious megalomania you feel comfortable calling him great.

Rufus Wainwright, though, is a great songwriter; there's no doubt about it. It's been almost painfully obvious since the first few chords of his self-titled debut, released back in 1997. He approaches his work the way Mike Tyson once famously described himself entering a ring to face an opponent ("I go in there with bad intentions"); his melodies are at once aggressively sad and gloriously sweet, his phrasing both natural and showy. His second album, Poses, dispels any sophomore-slump worries before the display on your CD player has passed the one-minute mark of the album-opening "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk." The song, with its catalog of vices ("Cigarettes and chocolate milk/These are just a couple of my cravings/Everything it seems I like's a little bit stronger/A little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me"), is clever enough to pass for a jazz standard but smartly modern enough to avoid sounding retro. Presented, like most of the songs on Poses, in a lush chamber-pop environment with some exotic instrumentation thrown in for color, it bleeds more character than most artists manage to evoke in their whole careers.

"Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" also possesses a melody that's instantly memorable and virtually impossible to stop humming. So are most of Wainwright's songs, actually; it's this quality, over and above his languidly gorgeous, resonant voice and his winning sing-so-they-can-hear-in-the-cheap-seats style, that makes Poses not just good but truly special. Where does he find these tunes, so smooth that they practically melt through the air, so catchy that they keep you awake at night? Why doesn't anybody else possess a gift even half so impressive? You'd think it'd be hard, but Wainwright goes to great pains to make it sound easy, drawling his notes languidly, dwelling on a syllable here or there as though he hadn't already figured out which way he was going next. The Morphine-meets-Rickie Lee Jones lilt of "Shadows" finds him testing his range for new effects, turning the volume down while notching up the emotional intensity; the high-romantic "Tower of Learning" builds so slowly to its climax that you almost want to stand up and cheer when it finally arrives. It is pure magic.

It's hard to imagine the year yielding a better album than this one. Anything's possible, of course, but practically every moment here screams next level. Every song's good, and more than half of them are considerably better than good. The only thing one might wish for is lyrics a little less youthfully impressed with their ability to wax wistful, but a genius such as Wainwright's will solve that problem, too. Just watch. Great songwriters have a way of surpassing even the loftiest expectations.

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