From the opening crescendo of “Trouble in Paradise,” Rufus Wainwright stalks through his latest album Unfollow the Rules with leonine grace and confidence. The album is his first pop album since 2012, though Wainwright has been busy, staging two operas at Lincoln Center. The son of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright uses this album to examine his legacies in pop, opera, and roots music with an eye toward the future.
“Trouble in Paradise,” the album’s first track, serves as an overture for the piece. While the song has a whimsical feel, it’s weighted with irony. According to Wainwright, the song comes from a discarded musical about an Anna Wintour-like character. However, its theme is universal to this album: the burdens of following the rules — and the consequences of flipping them on their head.
While the meat of the album focuses on the existential implications of the theme, Wainwright does make a nod toward his roots music upbringing with “You Ain’t Big.” It’s a relentlessly cool incorporation of Wainwright’s signature orchestral pop and western swing. As much as it’s about touring the smaller markets of the US, it’s also a sly examination of a singer-songwriter’s ego. Maybe there are certain rules for becoming popular in American entertainment, rules where you’re required to make compromises to certain peoples’ sensibilities, but you also have to contend with the rules in your own head.
As the album progresses, Wainwright leads us on flights of fancy, an assured guide on what he describes as a “garden path to a crevice.” This is best exemplified in “Romantical Man,” a song that finds Wainwright grappling with his career highs in the midst of societal and environmental collapse:
And the classical critics can’t stand a melody
I only ask what brought you to the opera firstly
Mother can you hear me, I’m calling you!
Mother can you hear me, I’ve made it through
But the temperature is rising
The water’s high
The forests they are dying
But just for tonight
I’m a roman- romantical man
Not everyone gets to have their operas staged in the world’s greatest houses, but the song explores yet another burden that should weigh upon any of us: the incongruity of pursuing our individual goals amidst the backdrop of, well … certainly, 2020 has brought this point into sharper relief than when Wainwright recorded it.
The album’s lush production is an expression of Wainwright’s sheer creative force: We’ve got an orchestral pop tune about the future death of a loved one (“Peaceful Afternoon”) and a sly stream-of-consciousness twangy ode to touring small markets. For anyone worried that Unfollow the Rules would be a letdown after waiting so long for its arrival, rest assured: Wainwright’s voice has hardly aged from his early recordings, but his songwriting has matured to reveal him as a complex, mature observer of human nature — and himself.