With their rigid length, rhyme scheme, and cadence, Shakespeare’s sonnets are fundamentally unsuited to the pop song format. That’s the challenge Rufus Wainwright faced when writing tunes for nine of them, and the difficulty may have prompted him to pick the path of least resistance by composing quasi-classical backdrops against which Anna Prohaska’s coloratura soprano flutters. Save for the playfully tempestuous “Th’Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame (Sonnet 129),” they’re serviceable and, like the spoken-word reprises by the likes of William Shatner and Siân Phillips, take few risks. Florence Welch fares better with the baroque Beach Boys backing of “When in Disgrace With Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29).” But it’s when Wainwright frees the material from its constraints — whether by constantly doubling back to the start of “Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)” to create a repeated chorus that drives the song’s klaxon-like urgency or abandoning English altogether for Christopher Nell and Jürgen Holtz’s epic world-weary gypsy cabaret “All dessen müd (Sonnet 66)” — that “Take All My Loves” transcends mere creative exercise.
ESSENTIAL “Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)”Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.