“Eerie,” is how Rufus Wainwright describes his sixth studio album. “Essentially my mourning for my mother while she was still alive.” His mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and died this January, with her musical family harmonising around her.
But here Wainwright sounds very alone with his grief. The orchestral arrangements on his previous five albums had grown increasingly extravagant, and he scored his 2009 opera, Prima Donna, for 70 musicians. All that opulence has been stripped away here, to leave the 36-year-old singer with only his piano and his swooping, soaring, sighing emotions. All the stages of bereavement pour out as Wainwright moves from Martha, in which he asks his singer-songwriter sister to pick up the phone, to come back home, through the melodramatic French libretto of the Prima Donna aria “Les Feux D’Artifice T’Appellent”, to the Shakespearean sonnets he set to music for a theatrical production in Berlin last year.
The musical tone sways between the corseted discipline of 19th-century classical, the looser swinging cuts of Gershwin and Sondheim and 20th-century pop. His production really fetishises the piano’s physicality. You can almost hear the dark, reflective gloss of the ebony veneer, the smooth action of the keys and the spring steel tension in the strings. You can feel Wainwright curling in quietly then arching back, foot braced against the sustain pedal as he hits those big, bombastic crescendos.