Rules are meant to be broken, or so the saying goes.
Rufus Wainwright has spent the better part of 20 years ignoring the rulebook and forging his own musical way. Gloriously bon vivant one moment and stunningly heartbreaking the next, Wainwright has a poet’s style of making the rough sound sweetly polished. His operatic delivery has carried us from love affairs gone sour to “Grey Gardens” to Shakespearian sonnets. Now, as middle age bears down and married life carries on, Wainwright returns to us with Unfollow The Rules.
The album opens with “Trouble In Paradise,” a humorous look at the shifting tides of not just the world but perhaps of Rufus Wainwright himself. The singer-songwriter uses the realm of fashion as the lyrical springboard for this song, surrounded by a delightful sea of pop and rock orchestration as realizations fall from his lips: “There’s always trouble in paradise/ Don’t matter if your drinks are neat or on ice/ There’s always trouble in paradise/ Don’t matter if you’re good or bad or mean or awfully nice.”
It’s that recognition of lessons learned over time that is one of the themes throughout Unfollow The Rules. Wainwright comes at us with a familiar sense of wry exploration, yes, but the tone is tempered by a feeling of contentment that only arrives with truly settling down.
You can hear that gratification especially on “Peaceful Afternoon,” with guitar and banjo strings jauntily backing Wainwright as he reflects on 15 years of a relationship. Wainwright hopes that his beloved’s face “is the last I see on a peaceful afternoon,” as marriage is now a well-oiled machine—even with times of anger mixed in with the joy. As he plainly sings, “it’s all a part of the game/ Yeah, it’s all a part of the symphony.”
That’s not to say that Rufus Wainwright isn’t still adept at penning songs that positively bleed with pangs of what is out of reach. “Don’t give me what I want/ Just give me what I’m needing,” he sings; a plea within the title track, a slow burn of a song that builds into a swelling of orchestra strings and his signature soaring vibrato. The actual title of this song might have been born from an offhand comment from Wainwright’s daughter, but “Unfollow The Rules” gets at the heart of what it means to go your own way as you ache for more.
Wainwright also takes inspiration from a convergence of location and history on “Damsel in Distress.” This is a song awash in AM Gold, Laurel Canyon sounds, from flutes echoing down the caverns to the strong, sturdy acoustic guitar throughout. While some of the influence found in this song comes from Wainwright living in Laurel Canyon (folk-rock osmosis and all that), the primary driving force was to honor another singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. Once you know that, it’s hard not to hear those distinct Mitchell-like touches and, of course, that was the point all along.
Unfollow The Rules is an album that rings out with wisdom and serenity, hard-won sometimes but gathered close all the same. One of the most poignant instances of this is heard during “Only The People That Love.” Wainwright lays out the trajectory of those who love fearlessly, as he declares “Love means go on and do it/ Love means go ahead and do it/ Love means go on and say it/ Love means go ahead and say it.” It’s another moment of flaunting the rules, but in the loveliest way possible.
And so, in the end, Wainwright’s latest album isn’t so much about shattering the groundwork beneath your feet as it is about finding peace with who you are and how you got there—bruises and all.
Follow reporter Mary Hughes at Twitter.com/spheeris1.