Album Review

Brian Ahnmark
Rufus Wainwright has never been one to shy away from exposing his wounds in song. His shortcomings in love are well-documented (“Foolish Love” is the first song on his eponymous debut); he has openly confessed to a broad range of debilitating addictions (“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” from Poses); he sustains an ongoing sibling rivalry with sister Martha; and of course, there's the conflicted relationship with father Loudon Wainwright III, broached memorably in the autobiographical “Dinner at Eight” from Want One.

Wainwright's new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, is an entirely different animal. Never before has a collection of songs felt like such an invasion of privacy.

During the creation of this record, Wainwright watched his beloved mother, folk musician Kate McGarrigle, slowly lose her three-year battle with cancer. She passed away in January, but not before accompanying Wainwright to the debut of his first opera, Prima Donna. McGarrigle also was able to attend her daughter's wedding, hold her first grandchild, and behold Rufus fall in love and enter into his first long-term committed relationship.

From all of that emerged All Days Are Nights, a haunting record that finds Wainwright alone at the piano on all 12 songs. It's a drastic departure for a flamboyant Broadway aficionado known for layering hundreds (yes, hundreds) of vocal takes atop one another.

Listening to these songs feels akin to breaking into Wainwright's house during a private rehearsal, hearing him play material never intended for public ears. The moments of quiet tribute to his mother hurt more juxtaposed beside celebrations of love and personal triumph. It's as though Wainwright wrote his mother a farewell letter in song, and included some good news to help her rest easy.

Opener “Who Are You New York?” would be considered “classic” Rufus on any other album, an ode to his adopted hometown. Here it feels lonely, an attempt to clutch normalcy in the midst of turmoil. The motif continues on “Sad With What I Have,” but with an optimistic twist at the conclusion, as Wainwright completes the phrase: “Sad with what I have... except for you.”

That conflict is the lifeblood of the record. How does one celebrate love and success when loss and suffering is just around the corner? “The dream has come and gone,” Wainwright sings in “The Dream,” one of the most powerful songs he's ever written. “Never does the dream come true without the nightmare,” he adds as a coda in “What Would I Ever Do With A Rose?”

The overall flavor of mourning leaves All Days Are Nights bereft of any of the lightheartedness that infuses Wainwright's earlier work. But that's how it should be, and it makes for a more unified vision. The piano work is exquisite, without a doubt the finest of Wainwright's career; his distinctive voice is the melody of suffering, worn but resilient.

On the surface, All Days Are Nights seems a bit patchwork. In addition to Wainwright's new material, he also includes three Shakespearean sonnets paired with music (part of a 2009 project with the Berliner Ensemble) and a French reading of a song from his opera, Prima Donna. As a body of work, however, it fits perfectly as a snapshot of the artist and his life. The sonnet project and the opera were two of Wainwright's proudest accomplishments, and ones that he was blessed enough to share with his mother before her passing.

She most certainly would have been proud of this musical kiss goodbye.