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Rufus Wainwright
Milwaukee at Last!!! Meryl Trussler , September 14th, 2009 08:06

I worry about Rufus Wainwright. He seems to be sliding like a loon down the bell-curve of intrigue again. That is, he started out tentatively; obviously talented, but tending to stick to the same structures and subjects (read: "go ahead, accuse me of just singing about places / or scrappy boy's faces", as he yaps in 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk'; read: tunes that swaggered between blues and wistful bossanova). From there he ascended, exploded even, into the Wainwright-shaped butterfly he was on the beguiling Want One and Want Two from '03-'04, all drunk on opera and Buckley and collaborating with Antony Hegarty; and then came Release the Stars, which was . . . dreamy, but decidedly shrug-inducing.

And here, three exclamation marks in tow, is Milwaukee at Last!!!, a live showcase of songs mostly from that shruggy thing, with the concession of an 'If Love Were All' cover and one last, good ol' 'Gay Messiah' at the end. Now, a lot of Wainwright's official live recordings have been justified; the Want-era DVDs shone with his trademark theatricality, sisterly audience rapport, and those dark, shimmering tracks such as 'The Art Teacher' moving the crowd to a thick and enamoured silence. The televised recording of his Judy Garland tribute show was so predictably exuberant/joyful/tear-jerking that when they stuck his sweet dopey face on TV, it was somewhat of a national favour.

This release, like the rest, shows off the perpetual treacle of Wainwright's vocals, his lazy mastery of the piano keys, his band that never miss a mark with horn or saxophone in hand. But that's just it. Wainwright places his feet exactly on every quaver and crotchet and it's all choreographed into fecklessness. Is it jaded to accuse a well-established songwriter of being too good a performer? Then here's a heart of jade. A heart that, come on, Rufus, just longs for you to shatter it again like you used to. Take a misstep. Not drugs again. The other crack, the voice-crack, the bone-crack of jumping feet-first into new territory like the Wants once did.

Lest I forget to mention, folks, there's a DVD here with far more familiar and better songs than the CD boasts, but I'm far too bitter to lend that any credit, too bored with this over-polished brass. The real thrill is in seeing the man live and not picking up Milwaukee's seconds; and the realest thrill will be our own ears' first impressions if, on the next record, his Want at last returns.