Musician goes through traumatic event, musician can’t seem to write songs about any except said traumatic event, musician responds a stripped-down, depressing album to help them get on with their life and career. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Beck and Kanye West have gone through that same cycle, and Rufus Wainwright is the latest to tackle the three stages of musical grief with ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.”

The traumatic event in question for Wainwright is the death of his mother, singer Kate McGarricle, earlier this year. The result is an album of Wainwright alone with his piano for 50 minutes, and also some of the most starkly beautiful music he’s ever made.

It was good for anything, traumatic or otherwise, to inspire Wainwright to tone down his lavish tendencies. Although he’s one of today’s most gifted songwriters and better than almost anyone at funneling baroque influences into pop music, his taste for show-stopping extravagance was getting out of control on his recent albums. His last studio album, 2005’s ‘Release the Stars,” was an abrasive disappointment, where Wainwright’s melodies and the man himself had to fight to stay afloat within the ornate excess.

Since then, he has only released a live album comprised mostly of songs from ‘Release the Stars,” and a double disc, song-for-song cover of Judy Garland’s famous 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.

So Wainwright’s intimacy on ‘All Days are Nights” is jarring: There are no orchestras, no glitz and no gimmicks to back him up, or lift him up. On most of the songs, especially ‘Who Are You New York?” and ‘Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” the piano notes sound like they’re spiraling out of control, creatinga backdrop of dizzying drama on its own.

But Wainwright’s despairing presence looms over the entire album so forcefully that the first listen of ‘All Days” is almost unnerving. These songs were meant to be performed on stage, alone and under a spotlight, but on record, it seems more like you’re in the same room as Wainwright, watching him exhaust himself with his unrestrained candor.

Only two songs, ‘Martha” and ‘Zebulon,” actually relate directly to the mourning that inspired the album. Wainwright has sung plenty of songs about his family before, and they took the form of inside jokes we weren’t meant to fully grasp. These two songs, meanwhile, are more like family drama as opera, and they sound like genuine cries for help.

Despite how gloomy ‘All Days Are Nights” is, it never exactly sounds funereal, even on the song that Wainwright actually performed at his mother’s funeral. Instead, he sounds utterly, unnervingly alone, like he simply couldn’t bother to let anything get in the way of raw self-expression. Of course, Wainwright still doesn’t go without his fair of indulgences: There’s ‘Les feux d’artifice t’appellent” a six minute song in French which is actually taken from Wainwright’s own opera, ‘Prima Donna,” and three of the songs are renditions of Shakespeare sonnets.

‘Les feux” could have easily been left out it’s very pretty but hardly necessary but the sonnets are the most surprising aspect of the album.In theory, they seem like typical high-minded experiments for Wainwright, but his performances are humbled and stunning. ‘Sonnet 43,” ‘Sonnet 20″ and ‘Sonnet 10″ weren’t chosen at random they have the themes of regret, mourning, heartbreak and homoeroticism that obviously appeal to Wainwright and don’t feel out of place compared to the other nine songs here.

But it’s probable that, more so than their themes, these sonnets were chosen simply because Wainwright does such an excellent job twisting and turning their words they sound improvised but assured, with Wainwright meticulously mining Shakespeare’s phrasings, surprising even himself with how emotional they turn out to be.

That’s actually a pretty good way to sum up the overall effect of ‘All Days Are Nights.” The whole thing is a Rufus-centric indulgence, really. He’s singing completely for himself, more so than ever. The deeply personal ‘All Days Are Nights” sounds like it’s being conjured right out of Wainwright, and he doesn’t care whether or not anyone else is affected by it.

It’s fascinating to simply hear Wainwright work himself through his own emotional outpour. Now that he’s got it out of his system, he’ll probably return to his typical glee on his next album, and that just adds to the mystique of ‘All Days are Nights.” This is Rufus Wainwright as he’s never been heard before, and as he might never let himself be heard again.

Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.



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