What’s most surprising about Out of the Game is that in spite of the presence of auteur producer Mark Ronson, it’s still a Rufus Wainwright record. And that’s a good thing.
Wainwright has had a wandering artistic spirit over the past few years — he’s written an opera, released a piano-and-vocal record featuring Shakespeare sonnets set to music, and in perhaps his most ambitious project, recreated Judy Garland’s famous 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall for a series of concerts, a live album, and DVD. Personally, he’s experienced the death of his mother Kate McGarrigle, the birth of a daughter, and marriage to his partner.
So it’s perhaps fitting that this is going to be regaled as a “return to form” by Wainwright, even if he’s hardly been dormant musically. It’s definitely a return to a certain vein of Wainwright’s music — straight-ahead pop that lends itself toward ornate arrangements and sinewy chord changes. Combined with Ronson’s warm production approach, the effect occasionally suggests a Steely Dan vibe, especially the song “Barbara,” which could easily be a ‘Countdown to Ecstasy’ outtake. On other tracks, Ronson takes his traditional backing combo, the Dap-Kings, and employs them toward almost Beatle-esque moments of horn solos and jaunty rhythms, with swirling strings applied liberally.
Ronson is one of a select cadre of producers working today whose mere attachment to a project suggests a specific sound. Like Danger Mouse, Rick Rubin, or T-Bone Burnett, you are supposed to know exactly what you’re getting when Ronson’s turning the knobs.
There’s a bit of Ronson’s trademark sound on Game, that neo-soul/funk/pop mashup that made Amy Winehouse an instant legend. It flares up in moments — the backing vocals on the record’s title track, the fuzzed-out doowop of “Rashida.” Even just those backing vocals are a bit jarring; the ghostly accompaniment of Wainwright’s sister Martha and mother McGarrigle, always such an integral part of Wainwright’s music, is nowhere to be found.
Mostly, Ronson leaves his bag of favored musical quirks at the studio door in favor of a more restrained approach that puts the songs front and center. Wainwright’s songwriting voice can swerve from sardonic to sincere within a breath; he’s not afraid to confront raw love and lust with equal sensitivity. It’s a joy to hear him working again with a tight band and creating this specific kind of music.
If you were hoping for Wainwright’s neo-soul record on Game, you may be disappointed, but the singer-songwriter and Ronson have crafted a tight selection of sometimes funky, occasionally ornate, always satisfying pop music.