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If you’ve ever felt that sense of breaking loose, coming through the darkness, and getting a closer look at who you really are, then Rufus Wainwright’s third record, Want One—at times fragile and at times crushingly mighty—is a soundtrack that channels those kinds of feelings. It goes for broke, with huge, sweeping Sgt. Pepper orchestral arrangements, sumptuous textures, layers and layers of Beach Boys-style harmonies and huge, leading-man vocals in the tradition of Elton John and Freddie Mercury. And the lyrics, keenly confessional and packed with whimsical references from literature to theater to sitcoms, reveal even more of a quick, quirky, encyclopedic mind. It’s explosive stuff, as large as the world and as small as a heart, and it will absolutely pierce both of your own.
Wainwright turned 30 the year Want One was made. He’d also struggled with substance abuse and other wild living and, as he said in the press, he’d been deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks. Did Wainwright throw himself into crafting Want One with the kind of apocalyptic urgency that comes from recognizing how close you—and your world—have come to the edge? That intensity is palpable and connects us to our own frailties.
But even without the backstory, Want One is a breathtaking demonstration of unleashed skill. It’s also where Wainwright announces himself in his own right. Before this record, his talent had been well recognized but still tied to his formidable father and mother—singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. “Oh, what a world my parents gave me,” Rufus sings on the first chorus of “Oh, What A World,” the first song on the album. But for Rufus, it wasn’t just a global statement; his parents had cast a long shadow on his chosen vocation. Still, by the end of this record, that shadow is barely visible. He may be part of a storied lineage, but he is capable of making his own trouble, surviving it, and creating his own courageous art from the experience.
Want One is also the record that showed us how Rufus was on his way to finding a place with the Elvis Costellos, Elton Johns, and Brian Wilsons of our world. Listening to it now, it makes perfect sense that he would later be commissioned to write operas, ballets and pop songs. Like those other artists, he has worked to master the fundamentals not just to keep on doing what he does, but to be flexible whenever his heart takes him to other musical worlds.
Some years back, Want One made it into the book 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die. Please, don’t wait that long to listen to this one—or wait at all for that matter.