Want Two: A Criminally Underrated Album That Sounds Like It’s Inspired By The Renaissance.
Every song Rufus Wainwright crafts is lovingly weird and deeply literary. He doesn’t write albums that sound too similar, which in today’s era of music, is refreshing. He is an artist with a voracious love of Shakespeare. His performance style is a strange love child of Elton John’s lyricism and Leonard Cohen’s earnestness. One album that often goes unnoticed in his discography is Want Two. A sort of sequel piece to Want One, it’s not nearly as recognized for its merits. If anything, this is because of its comparatively sober tone. Whereas Want One is a celebration of the chaotic life of fame, Want Two is the somber companion which looks to explore the ills of the world instead. They are companion pieces not because of a similar sound or style, but rather because of the subject matters, and the duality they present on a mediation of fame.
Want Two’s first track“Agnus Dei,” is a track that opens with a minute and a half of silence punctuated by strings being tuned. A little like Cage’s song 4’33” where random sounds become the musical itself this sets a much different pace then the more poppy, less introspective sound listeners thought they were in for. The rest of the track treats us to a darkly swooping loop of sparse phrases that sound more at home in a cathedral than a pop album. Enchanting as it is vexing, this is the start of an album rooted in a different time. Wainwright’s “The One You Love” throws out allusions to “Lady Gloom and her hornets circling around” while “Waiting For A Dream” sets the listener in a town filled with “tarot cards and Venetians clowns.” The use of allusions and objects to another time characterizes it accordingly. Musically, it’s easy to say the instrumentation is no more contemporary. With harps and pianos dubbed over to sound more like harpsichords, the phrase “baroque pop” is more evident here than ever.
Thematically, the songs on the album juggle topics that aren’t always popular in song. “The Art Teacher” is a metaphorical statement about the nature of love and art under capitalism, and the subsequent destruction of both. “Little Sister,” a tribute to his sister Martha Wainwright, also a fantastic musician, is a tongue-in-cheek ballad about the inequality of gender within the industry. “Gay Messiah” rolls politics, old Hollywood, and sexuality all into a single harmony-driven ballad, while closers “Crumb by crumb” and “Old Whore’s Diet” strike vivid imagery about the ideals of true love in a gothic fairytale setting.
This isn’t to say the album, though somewhat removed from contemporary style and themes isn’t still relatable at its core. Many a lyric
s hits exactly where it needs to. Lines such as “Why can’t I sleep with my eyes open/the mind has so many memories/can you remember what it looks like when I cry?” from “the one you love,” delve into the psyche and the nature of wanting attention. “Hometown Waltz’s” refrain of “and then you hear your mother’s laugh attached to the phone/could have walked around the block ‘cause all roads lead to home” describes the nature of harrowing family relations. “Waiting For A Dream’s” brutal honesty: of “you’re not my lover/and you never will be/’cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me,” cuts right to the heart of self-destructive tendencies.
The cover art should be noted for its allusions as well. Wainwright is pictured dressed as “the Lady of Shatott,” adorned in flowers and wreathed in flowing locks of hair–a clear reference to Tennyson’s poem of the same name. He takes on her literary identity and turns the album into a metaphor. Not only does the imagery challenge gender roles but it asks listeners to think about how often history repeats itself. The struggle of such an overall thematic scheme for the album isn’t in famed wars or innovation, but in the colloquial pointless microcosms; want and loss, longing and despair, overly distracting stardom versus the the quiet ache of being an observer to this wide and disastrous world. One such ache that can make even the most optimistic “half sick of shadows” amongst the water-side filled with dying swans.