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Rufus Wainwright goes pop, doesn't lose his bang

The indie balladeer calls on Mark Ronson to helm his new album, 'Out of the Game.' It has the flavor of a party album, but with Wainwright's rich tenor the centerpiece.

May 17, 2012|By Margaret Wappler, Special to the Los Angeles Times

What happens when an indie balladeer with a love for opera sets out to make a true pop album? Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright decided to find out. Much to the relief of Wainwright's fan base, going pop doesn't mean dropping the piano or enlisting Skrillex to refashion his soft touch into crossover club anthems.

Instead, the Canadian American artist who debuted in 1998 with vibrato-soaked ballads and later cemented his reputation with playful odes to vices like cigarettes and chocolate milk, called on one of pop's most stylish producers to helm his seventh solo album, "Out of the Game."

Best known for adding retro-soul sheen to Amy Winehouse's girl-group fantasies, Mark Ronson helped Wainwright cut a party album of sorts — but one filled with tantalizing twists and turns guided by Wainwright's rich tenor. "Out of the Game" is a resplendent adventure that is replete with melodic treasures on first listen and grows more rewarding each time it's played. The glam looseness of David Bowie's "Young Americans" and the elaborate structures of Steely Dan preside over the record, while still looping back to Wainwright's cabaret-meets-folk roots.

"Out of the Game" is just one of many flights of fancy that Wainwright, 38, has taken in the last few years. His opera, "Prima Donna," premiered in Europe in 2009 and came to New York earlier this year. Deep in grief for his mother Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer who died of clear-cell sarcoma in 2010, Wainwright also wrote a set of difficult piano pieces that became "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."

Both projects were grueling labors of love. "I've always been a kind of brooding romantic individualist," Wainwright said from New York, where he was rehearsing for a tour that brought him to L.A. over the weekend. "And I'll always be that way, but I really went to the edge of that existence."

After trying to please what he calls "the damned ladies" of the classical music world (for the record, "Prima Donna" received mostly warm reviews) and wearing himself out with the "treacherous" parts for "Lulu," Wainwright wanted a break from being the sole composer.

"I was a little sick of myself, believe it or not," Wainwright said. "I just felt like sitting back and singing some fun songs with other people."

Enter Ronson, who shaped the songs while still respecting Wainwright's sometimes-labyrinthine melodic sense.

"Rufus' songwriting is glorious and ambitious," Ronson said on the phone from New York. "But it's never for the sake of showing off; it's really how his mind works. From someone else you might be like, 'Oh, come on,' but it's him combining all the things he loves and feels inspired by. My role was to take those things and anchor them."

The first step in that process was to steep himself in Wainwright's song craft. Over a year and a half, Ronson listened to some 35 of Wainwright's demos and eventually narrowed the pool to a dozen, including three that Wainwright had written long before but never used. One song, "Respectable Dive," was written on the fly in the studio.

"It was crucial to live with those songs," Ronson said. "You don't hear them once and know how it goes. I had to get their rhythms inside and out, in order to teach it to the band."

Current and former members of the Dap-Kings, including guitarist Thomas Brenneck, make up the backing band on "Out of the Game." "From the third take," Ronson said, "everyone bought into the music. I didn't have to sell them any further." For Wainwright, used to toiling alone, recording with this band in Brooklyn was like "hanging out as a band of thieves in a treehouse or something. I had crushes on all of them."

Although "Out of the Game" is a frothy affair in many ways, the contemplative stories and inner reflections that are Wainwright's trademarks remain. In the silvery setting of "Montauk," he paints a future where his daughter Viva, now 1, comes to visit him and her other father, Wainwright's fiancé Jorn Weisbrodt. (Viva's mother, by the way, is Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca.)

"It's about my fiancé and daughter, but in the end it's about my mother, as so many of these songs are. It's about preparing a child for death, one of the lessons you have to learn," said Wainwright.

It's that kind of dark grace that gives "Out of the Game" an undercurrent that most pop albums take pains to skirt. But for all the sadness in a song like "Candles," the album's closing elegy for his mother, there's also Wainwright's palpable joy as he pours his slightly worn voice into every line. On "Barbara," a song written for his publicist and cushioned in silky-smooth synths, Wainwright lovingly draws out every syllable of her name.

"It's been said that this is his most pop album, but it's still Rufus," Ronson said. "His sensibilities are extremely avant-garde." There was never any worry that Wainwright might lose himself. "Even if I had wanted to," Ronson said, "I wouldn't have been able to push him into anything."

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