Rufus Wainwright Wants a Hit with 'Out of the Game'

Rufus Wainwright Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Rufus Wainwright’s fans have come to expect extravagance. A new album might start with a lushly orchestrated cabaret number, veer into gothic folk, pause for a ballad or two played solo at the piano, take a detour into Radiohead-inspired alternative rock, and end with a rousing show tune backed by strings, brass, woodwinds, harpsichord, banjo, harp, and a choral group. There was the time he opened a record with a 6-minute ditty sung entirely in Latin—with lyrics and title borrowed from the “Agnus Dei” portion of the Roman Catholic Mass. In concert he’s equally prone to excess. Most nights on his 2007 tour in support of Release the Stars, he opened the concert wearing a garishly multicolored striped suit, switched to lederhosen after intermission, began the encore in a plush white bathrobe, and ended the evening decked out in drag as he performed a cover of Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy,” a song made famous by Judy Garland.

Admirers who take such flamboyance for granted may be shocked by Wainwright’s seventh studio album, Out of the Game, which sounds remarkably restrained—like the work of a man trying very hard to rein it all in. “Yeah, maybe it’s a Rufus Reined-Wright record,” he says with a chuckle.

Why curb his musical enthusiasms? Part of it was simple creative fatigue. “I love making albums where every song sounds like its own opera,” he says. But Wainwright has now written an actual opera—Prima Donna, which debuted at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, England, in 2009 and had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past February. When it came time to record his next pop album, he says, “I was pretty exhausted ... I was ready to sit back and let someone else do the conducting.”

That someone is Mark Ronson, the Grammy Award–winning producer of hits for Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, and Adele. And that points to what might be the deeper reason for the new record’s change of pace. “I need a hit single somewhat desperately,” Wainwright admits. His critically acclaimed self-titled debut album was released in 1998, which, he notes, was “right at the beginning of the collapse” of the record industry. “I remember thinking it could never get any worse.” But of course it did. With a rabid cult following that allows him to fill thousand-seat auditoriums around the world, Wainwright has it much better than most struggling musicians. Yet the reality is that composing music requires “taking a year off at a time to sit around and dream.” That kind of leisure, in turn, requires commercial success.

Far from being out of the game, then, Wainwright is in it more intensely than ever before. “I’m using reverse psychology, taunting the fates with a touch of snobbery,” Wainwright says about the album’s title. “We’ll see if that works.” Despite the novelty of its approach, the record isn’t a complete departure from his past. Wainwright still crafts intricate, unpredictable melodies—the kind that inspired Elton John to describe him as the “greatest songwriter on the planet.” A handful of tracks boast baroque arrangements that would have sounded at home on his most ambitious releases, Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004). And Wainwright’s singing—with its impeccable phrasing, highly resonant tone, and effortless range of well over two octaves—has never sounded better.

Where the new album most surprises is in its unabashed embrace of pop-music styles (and consequent lack of references to classical forms of music). “I’m really not that familiar with the history of pop music,” Wainwright says. “I mean, I know of it somewhat, but Mark knows it inside and out.” It shows in the album’s production and arrangements. Several tracks evoke the early 1970s: a laid-back, slightly druggy vibe that’s equal parts Laurel Canyon (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) and Young Americans-era David Bowie, with flashes of funk guitar and soul singers filling out the sound. Other songs echo Harry Nilsson, pay homage to doo-wop, and experiment with cowboy music. Another takes a stab at the techno-dance pop pioneered by Ultravox, the Pet Shop Boys, and OMD in the 1980s.

Wainwright’s lyrics have always ranged widely through his personal life, delving into his experiences as an openly gay man, his spiritual and physical struggles with drug abuse, and even his emotionally fraught relationship with his father, legendary folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. On Out of the Game, he pushes further. A pair of tender love songs—“Respectable Dive” and “Song for You”—explicitly address his fiancé Jorn Weisbrodt (the wedding is set for August). The mournful closing number, “Candles,” touchingly expresses his pain at losing his mother (the equally legendary singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in early 2010). And then there’s “Montauk,” a quirky, atmospheric track that’s sung to his 1-year-old daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, imagining her “one day” paying a visit to “your dad ... and your other dad” at their beach house on Long Island.

Wainwright shares custody of Viva with her mother, Lorca Cohen, daughter of renowned singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Asked half in jest if he and Lorca saw the pairing as a form of musical eugenics—controlled breeding for the sake of songwriting—Wainwright smiles and pauses. “You know, a lot of people think this is some newfangled 21st-century arrangement,” he says. “But it’s actually quite ancient what we did. It’s a very old-fashioned thing to do for two families in the same business in the same city—we’re both from Montreal—to just align their forces and come together.” So, I ask, it’s kind of like the Hapsburgs and the Tudors making a deal for the good of the throne? “Well,” Wainwright replies, “you said it, I didn’t.”

Wainwright may fashion himself an aristocrat—but he also needs, as he puts it, to “go out there and bring home the bacon.” Will Out of the Game finally give him the hit he craves? “I don’t know. I’ve been doing all these interviews, and they all ask, ‘Didn’t you say this would be your hit record, and then that would be your hit record?’ So I’m nuts, but whatever, I’ll say it again, one last time ... I may be the boy who cried wolf,” he says. “But you know, the wolf eventually showed up.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Wainwright's opera. It is Prima Donna, not Bella Donna.