On his current tour, Rufus Wainwright looks back at his younger self
Rufus Wainwright has been thinking about New York. That’s where the celebrated singer-songwriter composed some of the songs that made their way onto “Poses,” his breakthrough 2001 record that he is currently revisiting with the All of These Poses tour, which stops at Emerson Colonial Theatre Wednesday. Despite the tour’s name, he’s also performing many songs from his acclaimed self-titled debut, which turned 20 last June.
“Poses,” says Wainwright, was a conscious attempt to mix up his sound after the lavish, baroque “Rufus Wainwright.” “My first album,” says Wainwright, on the phone from a tour stop in Chicago, “was a kind of repository of my coming of age, and the songs took years to ferment. ‘Poses’ was somewhat more conceptual. I knew right off the bat that ‘Poses’ had to be structured in a way that was pretty solid. It’s really the sophomore effort that’s most important. The first one you really get a hall pass but the second has to be above and beyond.”
“Above and beyond” perfectly describes “Poses,” which ranges in style from delicate, self-aware piano balladry (as on the title track) to the punchy, jangly pop of “California.” Then there is the brooding, cello-fueled “Evil Angel”; the spare, Randy Newman-esque “In A Graveyard”; and “Grey Gardens,” which includes allusions to both the bleak, campy documentary of the same name and Thomas Mann’s novel “Death in Venice.”
It is this varied approach that singer-songwriter Rachel Eckroth, opening act for the tour and a performer in Wainwright’s band, likes most about him. “[Wainwright’s first two records] were a part of my introduction into the world of songwriting,” says Eckroth. “I love that Rufus pulls from a wide range of musical styles; he’s not one-dimensional. In that way, we are very similar.”
“Poses” also includes a cover of “One Man Guy,” a song written and originally recorded by his father, Loudon Wainwright III. Though he says they “get along quite well now,” the two have had a well-publicized, rocky relationship, which Rufus says is partly due to different personalities. “The juxtaposition between him and I is so stark, which I think a lot of gay men can relate to,” says Wainwright. “A lot of gay men love their dads and their dads love their sons, but there’s still this divide that’s pretty vast. And just trying to relate to each other is a very treacherous business.”
The cover of “One Man Guy,” which also features his younger sister Martha, was one way to relate. “He’s a brilliant songwriter, and I always knew that growing up,” Rufus says of his father. “On a practical level there was something very solid about doing one of his songs, especially that one.” He adds that the song gave the album a “straightforward, campfire” moment, a tender group sing-along in the middle of a record so fraught with vulnerability. As for Loudon, he loves his son’s rendition. Reached via e-mail, he writes, “I was delighted when I learned that Rufus was going to record ‘One Man Guy.’ That version is terrific — damn near definitive, I’d say.”
Amidst the album’s literary allusions and familial connections is New York, whose influence was indelible on the record’s identity. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, says Wainwright, “I made a point to kind of conquer Troy and really immerse myself in the downtown scene and all the places that wouldn’t have me before. I assimilated into that world for a little bit.” The album was largely written at the Hotel Chelsea, a since-shuttered Manhattan landmark whose former residents include Iggy Pop, Dylan Thomas, Nico, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith. The site, says Wainwright, was especially inspirational for the record’s title track and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a breezy ode to overindulgence. At the Chelsea, he says, “one had a very laissez-faire, nonchalant Bohemian lifestyle where you’re just sort of drifting, mixed with this really hard-edged closeness to death where you can gracefully fall off into the other world if you’re not too careful, if you’re too relaxed about it. I was really starting to examine that as an observer.”
In addition to touring, Wainwright is working on a new record, due out next year — one that he says recalls his debut. “This new record is very much a mirror, a bookend of my first record,” he says. “I’m using some of the same musicians.”
Because the album is focused on unity and happiness, his latest song, the scathing “Sword of Damocles,” will not be included. The single, released a few weeks before the midterm elections, recalls a parable in which Damocles, a royal servant, switches places with King Dionysius. Damocles is overjoyed until he finds that a sword, restrained only by a single horsehair, is constantly held above his head. Wainwright’s video begins with a text introduction about the importance of power and responsibility — addressed to “Mr. Trump” — and ends with the word “Vote.”
Despite the song’s political message, Wainwright says its implications are broader than they seem. “It’s not about [President] Trump or me, but it’s about all of us. We’ve all got the sword ready to go, and it has to come down. A change has to occur. We’re all doomed.” Then, in a typically sly, self-aware touch, he laughs at his own audacity.
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $39.50-$110, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com