Drolly admitting in song to a preference for cigarettes and chocolate milk — together or discretely, who cares — is the essence of camp. And there it is, a song called “Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk.” Impish and sincere, a crooner who often lets exotic instruments and percussive gewgaws crowd his singing, Rufus Wainwright won’t bother to sort out contradictions even if they repulse listeners. He wants us to imagine a Marlboro Red afloat in a glass of purplish lukewarm Quik. Keep imagining, he hints. “And then there’s those other things/ Which for several reasons we won’t mention,” he sings over the slithery electric piano melody. What “things”? Stranger. Harder. Fatter. Harmful. Mmm yes.
On Poses, Wainwright’s second and best album, this gay son of a noted acerbic singer-songwriter guides us through a house whose many mansions reflect his fascinations: big time rollers and soft-skin boys, evil angels and rebel princes, Bea Arthur and Grey Gardens. He collaborates with electronic act Propellerheads (“Shadows”). He experiments with Mediterranean atmospheres (“Greek Song”). As on his eponymous debut, expensive sessioneers like the Attractions’ Bruce Thomas and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench provide instrumental filigrees. Turning nepotism to his advantage, he gets crucial help from sister Martha Wainwright and pal Teddy Thompson, son of Richard, the singer-guitarist who turned guitar lines into sneers. Makes sense. And don’t underestimate the audacity of a player like DreamWorks giving a queer artist’s ornate studio rock album a full court press; mainstream culture had made plenty of meek adjustments by 2001 but c’mon.
Then again, as a recording neophyte Wainwright had had it relatively easy. Precocity and pedigree make for a splendid cheering section. He earned Canadian acclaim at 14 for writing “I’m A Runnin‘,” the theme to a kids flick (Wainwright’s hair in the video, a time capsule in itself, was never again this demure). Signed in the mid ’90s to DreamWorks by legendary scion Lenny Waronker, Wainwright threaded a daisy chain of industry alliances: he met co-producer Jon Brion after dad Loudon’s pal, arranger Van Dyke Parks, dug what he heard of Wainwright’s demos. During the Indian summer of the dot-com era CD boom, which from this vantage point looks like June 1914, he spent close to a million dollars on Rufus Wainwright in 1998. Uneven, bound by the tension between the artist’s fondness for overpainting and his modest talent for hummable tunes, the album garnered the requisite hosannas. Rolling Stone named him Best New Artist. I didn’t discover it until a year later, the summer I came out. “April Fools” and especially “Imaginary Love” destroyed me.
A succes d’estime gets you invited to parties, though, which compensates for the absence of a commercial breakthrough. Wainwright by his own account went to a lot of them. He was a man about town: connected, available, intensely handsome (again, the hair). He watched people. Some of these experiences wound up in the songs he wrote between 1999 and 2000; “Poses,” for example, emerged after a stint at New York’s notorious Chelsea Hotel. “All of a sudden I had a calling card and a bit of a reputation,” he told Barney Hoskyns in a 2001 profile. “And I went to all these parties and met all these people and found that, basically, it’s like a big revolving door. I thought if I could look at it as a series of poses and extract from it what I needed for my songs, then I would survive.”
To be gay is to strike a series of poses. Insouciance and a fervent sense of play are our gifts to popular culture. The ligaments of our communities require them. Steeling ourselves against encounters with even loved ones, we inhabit personae as defensive strategies and for the sake of offensive destabilizing: It’s harder to hurt us if you don’t know who we are in that moment. That’s how we win. Yet to pose is also a mark of deep seriousness: We become other people who strike our fancy aesthetically or sexually, take your pick. These phenomena form the subtext of Wainwright’s album. A valentine to being a gay male artist in his twenties, Poses captures beauty as ephemeral as how a lover looks shutting the windows of a hotel room, as poignant as the snap of a guitar string, as ineffable as a sister’s harmonies. Wainwright’s is an appetite never sated. He likes being on the make.
Although the credits suggest a brigade hired to guard Wainwright’s crossover dreams, co-producer Pierre Marchand, best known for his work with Sarah McLachlan, earned the paycheck for keeping his client focused. Wainwright’s engorged plum of a voice can sometimes irritate — a tendency to lavish an unsuspecting tune with redundant vibrato remains — but for the most part the team ensures that the experiments and his exertions line up. The aforementioned collab with Propellerheads’ Alex Gifford boasts a unique stop-start rhythm accompanying the surface electro-fizz; while not “electronica,” to use the era’s most loathsome moniker, it has something like Everything But The Girl’s near-contemporaneous experiments with plush programmed balladry. Savoring a melody with Near Eastern overtones, Wainwright turns “Greek Song” into a wistful meditation on a beautiful unavailable boy (“You turn me on, the girl is gone, so come on let’s go”). In the end, marooned in a Barnes & Noble, he lets this sun-kissed reverie ravish him.
But Wainwright wanted hits too. He thought he wrote one in “California,” anchored to an acoustic riff not shy about hiding its antecedents in CCR’s “Proud Mary,” and why not: The Golden State keeps Rufus a-rollin’. Depending on mood, “California” may cloy. Even stronger is “Grey Gardens,” whose piano gleams like a fender in sunlight. At last Wainwright fuses his high art fascinations and populist aspirations. A lustrous ode to a “Tadzio,” the youth for whose sake Thomas Mann’s pompous middle-aged composer Aschenbach in Death In Venice risks — in ascending order of gravity — ridicule, tuberculosis, and bad dye jobs. “Grey Gardens” uses massed harmonies to shrewd effect. No dolor here: Everyone gets what he wants, and if not, well, the world is full of young men.
On an album dedicated to posing and poseurs, it made sense that a cover is its most glorious moment. When Loudon Wainwright III wrote “One Man Guy” in 1985, he put into his casual talk-sung performance a couple decades’ worth of touring wisdom and the orneriness that made him, according to Rufus, a royal pain in the ass as a dad; for Loudon, “One Man Guy” was a declaration of independence wrapped around a middle finger. What his son did to his composition ranks among the most wizardly of pop queerings, a companion to spiritual godfathers the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always On My Mind.” Wainwright on acoustic guitar slows it down; he’s in no hurry. His eyebrows only slightly arched, his “One Man Guy” turns into a declaration of sexual fealty as much as a meditation on the loneliness of the gay man. “People meditate, hey that’s just great/ Trying to find the inner you,” he sings, and where his father took pleasure in his own sarcasm, Wainwright pouts: Meditation and family reinforce his solitude. Then Martha and Teddy join him on the chorus, a trio of grown-up kids who’d survived asshole fathers. By queering Loudon’s tune, Wainwright accepts his birthright and then kills it.
Wainwright played “One Man Guy” the time I saw him live in early summer 2002. At Miami Beach’s long gone Billboard Live, the giddy and not terribly sober artist treated an hourlong set as a hootenanny, with the audience part of an extended family that included Teddy and Martha onstage. He opened with “Grey Gardens” swathed in half-darkness, then upon hitting its euphoric key change the house lights revealed the band. He dedicated a song to “Neil and Chris.” We glanced up. Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe watched the show from a private balcony (they would play their own set a week later). As for “One Man Guy,” his version that Friday evening remains one of my most cherished concert moments. Martha and Teddy’s harmonies buoyed him, a gesture of dialectical generosity: He needed this community to affirm his aloneness.
Almost a dozen years would elapse before Wainwright returned to Poses‘ taut studio rock verities. Along the way he would record Want, a double album cleaved in two, wanton in its diversity; a Judy Garland tribute recorded in Carnegie Hall; another album on which he set three of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music — the sort of things expected from a writer whose appetites are inseparable from his curiosity. Elton John, he says, helped him kick a crystal meth habit. He partied with Jenna Bush and Marianne Faithfull, though not, presumably, at the same time. He got married, had a child via sperm donation with Leonard Cohen’s daughter. That’s some pedigree. In the two decades since his second album, Rufus Wainwright has continued to build an estimable career, but he has yet to surpass this garish poetry about and fit for young flâneurs who drink their pleasures in the fleeting. Gay culture has shifted since Poses, but it still needs those stranger and harder things — virtually, even.