The Agaetis Byrjun Award for Album I'll Only Listen to in the Shittiest Depths of Winter
By Scott Reid | 12 December 2010
All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu
…because really, this is one stark, chilly abyss of operatic “pop.” It’s also way better than the initial slogs through—or the near decade’s worth of difficult, middling releases leading up to it—let on.
Which: it’s been a tough, extravagant journey for Rufus Wainwright fans since Poses, the phenomenal follow-up to his much-lauded eponymous debut, was released in 2001. His last effort, Release the Stars (2007), was a hot mess of over-indulgent arrangements and uncharacteristically slight songwriting. The double record that daintily pillars between the two, Want (2003/4), tried even his biggest fans’ patience over a two year period—both halves paving the way for just how big, in a florid and distracting way, his music could get when his ambition wasn’t (relatively) reigned in.
All Days Are Nights is an aggressive, direct reaction to all of that—the opposite of Want and Stars’ theatrical indulgence, except without losing the theatrical part, really. At all. I mean, this is Rufus Wainwright we’re talking about, but still: gone are the strings, the backing vocals (yup, this is his first record without sister Martha, to whom he wrote the year’s most striking voicemail message: “Martha it’s your brother calling / Time to go up north and see mother / Things are harder for her now / And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore … Martha, please / Call me back”), the guitars, the shitty songs. It’s paradoxically his most concept-heavy and bare record; the titular “Lulu” references, as Wainwright insists, the Dark Lady from Shakespeare’s sonnets—the “brooding, dangerous woman that lives within all of us.” It’s an overarching, curious bleakness that covers all twelve of these dirges. Expecting a dance-able beat or chipper woodwinds to accompany a song called “So Sad With What I Have”? Fuck no. Or a shred of optimism in “True Loves”? Think again: “It’s the true loves that make me want to cry / It’s the true loves that make me want to say goodbye.” Again: this is dark, chilly, abyss-y stuff.
And, speaking of Shakespeare: dude co-wrote three of these songs. The adapted sonnets, which most directly hit at the Dark Lady theme by quoting that shit, sit stubbornly and stuffily at the center of this album. As much of a pompous deal-breaker as some of the sonnet suite can seem, especially the drowsy and drawn-out melody of “A Woman’s Face,” the first and last parts are examples of Wainwright’s still-artful ability to create amorphous, whimsical structures and hold it all together with that voice, no matter the amount of “thou art“s. A voice he even manages to contort, briefly, to sound like Thom Yorke (seriously—:38-:42 in “When Most I Wink,” check it), when he’s not reaching for tasteful histrionics (“The Dream”), trading places with the lead soprano of his opera (“Les feux d’artifice t’appellent” is the final aria from Prima Donna), or once again making the most of newly rediscovered restraint (“Who Are You New York?”).
So…an album full of pitch-black piano-and-vocal ballads not sound like your thing? Or anyone’s thing? I get that—especially since it’s only when the world outside this album starts to drop to its level, like a symbiosis of two icy depths, that it becomes not just bearable but a uniquely fulfilling experience. One still for fans only, sure, but it’s fantastic news for us, at least for a few months of the year: here, stripped of everything that had shit-flooded Releasing the Stars and made the truly Great moments of Want so tirelessly hard-earned, is Rufus Wainwright’s most revealing and rewarding effort since Poses.
Just expect the moments of reprieve, of comparative levity, to be fleeting: just as “Zebulon” opens up and Wainwright’s voice begins to truly gain momentum, each piece converging toward a tangible payoff, it leaps committedly back into the abyss. But it does so with somewhat light-hearted lyrics, the slowly crumbling final minute soundtracking the revisiting of a childhood crush (“Let’s meet up, why not tonight? / In the lane behind the schoolyard / And we’ll have some tea and ice cream”), delivered with a black smudgy wink. Which, I guess, is what comes just after that cover photo, the exhausted close to an unnerving forty-minute staring contest.