Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dinner at Eight - Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright is an acquired taste. His voice is nasal and anoretic (especially on his debut, where I don't recommend starting), and his musical tastes run pretty skew to popular music. Classical, opera, folk, and Tin Pan Alley are the founts from which his inspiration springs, and he has a slightly aloof, wry, and condescending way about him. His compositions (funny how that word came to mind before "songs") can be dry and subtle, often bereft of hooks, and only reward you after multiple listenings or upon being placed in an appropriate context. Or they can be sweepingly melodramatic, full of romantic and impressionistic flourishes that go down as easy as a bowl of the richest chocolate mousse - and leaving you feeling about as queasy afterward. Oh, and add in the fact that he is a gay man; this colors his writing considerably. (Can you imagine a straight songwriter name-dropping Bea Arthur? Or writing a song from the point of view of a young woman reminiscing about her first high school crush on a man?) Needless to say, he hasn't been gracing the top of the pop charts.

What he has done is make some of the most gorgeous, intelligent, moving music of the new century; even an authority as high as Elton John has branded him "the greatest songwriter on the planet. " Choosing my favorite Rufus song is no easy task. There's an awful lot of gold, particularly from Poses and the two Want albums. But "Dinner at Eight" (from Want One) stands above the rest. This love song to his father ironically resonates with anger and bitterness throughout, and exemplifies the brutally personal turned universal.

Rufus's family (father Loudon III, sister Martha, deceased mother Kate McGarrigle, aunt Anna McGarrigle) is an immensely talented group of folk musicians. In fact, when Loudon first happened on the scene in the early 1970s, he was branded with that dreaded "new Bob Dylan" title that no one could live up to. Despite that, Loudon - and the rest of the family, really - is no stranger to critical acclaim, even if they haven't achieved widespread popularity.

They are also just as flawed as humans can be and they air out their familial trials, tribulations, and secrets in their music with a willingness that makes the listener sometimes feel exploitative. (See Loudon's tribute to his then breast-feeding son, "Rufus is a Tit Man." See also Martha's paean to her dad, "B.M.F.A." It stands for "bloody mother fu..." uh, yeah, you got it.) "Dinner at Eight" fits right in here...and although I don't know the Wainwright/McGarrigle canon like I suspect I should, I bet this song sits near the top of the heap of these expositions.

From a musical standpoint, "Dinner at Eight" does away with the typical opulence, and begins with a quiet, stately piano arpeggio that belies the drama directly ahead. "No matter how strong," Rufus warns his dad, "I'm gonna take you down with one little stone. I'm gonna break you down and see what you're worth...what you're really worth to me." As an orchestra quietly builds behind him, he recalls an argument between he and his dad one night; it's easy to imagine it might have been a battle of egos between the well-established father and the rising star son.

But just as soon as it seems Rufus turns away from the argument, dismissing his part in it, he suddenly stops and stands his ground. "Why is it so...that I've always been the one who must go? That I've always been the one told to flee? When in fact you were the one...in the drifting white snow who left me?" Bitter accusations were seldom so poetically put. Cue a weeping harp mimicking the snow falling, and you now have Rufus's mom, Kate, weeping herself, out of the anguish of knowing such a strained relationship existed between two men she loved so much.

Suddenly, the music swells, and with it, Rufus's righteous anger. "So put up your fists, and I'll put up mine. No running away from the scene of the crime." It's the moment of reckoning for his father. Reconciliation and peace, or a lifetime filled with resentment and anger. Either way, it's his dad's choice. "God's chosen a place somewhere near the end of the world, somewhere near the end of our lives. But till then, Daddy, don't be surprised if I want to see the tears in your eyes." Rufus is asking for an apology, an admission of guilt, for the hard facade to break down just once. "Then I'll know...you loved me." Just that much. But you get the sense that Rufus doubts it, as he repeats the beginning of the song, re-establishing his defiant stance against his father.

"Dinner at Eight," for all its beauty, is achingly uncomfortable, and Rufus does his best to heighten the tension. The music ebbs and flows with emotion, with little regard to a regular beat, and creeps to a near-standstill, tellingly, as he sings "in the drifting white snow, you left me." A slow, painful death trumps a quick one any day, and Rufus is going to make damned well and sure his dad knows how much it hurt feeling abandoned.

So, yeah. Wrenches your heart out, this song does. But in the most beautiful manner. Well worth a listen.

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