CD Review: Rufus Wainwright, “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

One of the best moments I’ve ever had at a concert happened during a Rufus Wainwright show on my birthday in 2004. It was at a smallish outdoor venue in downtown Columbus, OH during his tour with Ben Folds and Guster. It was my second show of that tour (I had also attended the opening gig in a few days earlier in Dayton, OH) and I was already in a good mood because Guster was going first, which meant I could hang out by the bar and chat with friends while they played (sorry Guster fans, but I do not enjoy them).

Rufus was second in the lineup that night (during that tour, the three acts rotated order every night) and Want One was the album he was supporting. A few songs into his set, he launched into the then-unreleased song, “Gay Messiah,” which later found its way onto Want Two. As he started playing the first notes of the song, a rainbow formed over the stage — I swear. Everyone in the audience could see it and we all started going batshit crazy, screaming and trying to get his attention so that we could point it out to him.

My friend and I were sitting in the last row of seats before the lawn and a group of teenagers sitting right behind us enterprisingly wrote, in bright pink lipstick on the big piece of cardboard they’d brought to sit on, “LOOK UP! THERE’S A RAINBOW!” They held it high above their heads and those of us around them started pointing at the sign to get Rufus to look at it, which he finally did as he was finishing the song. When he played the last notes, he looked up and said, “Oh, there is a rainbow. God loves the gays!” at which the crowd went nuts. Then, as he started the next song, the rainbow disappeared. I know you think I’m making this shit up, and if I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I would think the same thing. But it did happen and it was truly magical.

What does this story have to do with Wainwright’s latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu? Goosebumps — I got goosebumps when that rainbow appeared and I got goosebumps the first time I listened to this record.

The last year for Wainwright has had its ups and downs. He premiered his first opera, Prima Donna and he debuted a theatrical collaboration with director Robert Wilson that was based on Shakespeare’s sonnets.  He performed with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, one last time in London at Christmastime before her death of cancer the following month. And now, he’s released his sixth, and arguably his most personal, album.

My first introduction to Wainwright’s music came in 2001, when a friend, and former college professor of mine, played his sophomore album, Poses, for me, telling me it was one of the most gorgeous albums he’d ever heard. After listening to it myself, I had to agree with him. The next day, I went out and bought a copy of the album myself and listened to it non-stop for more than a week. I was officially a fan.

Last winter, I reviewed the documentary about Wainwright and his opera, which aired on the Sundance channel, called Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna. The documentary not only gives a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the opera, but also gives insight into Wainwright’s songwriting process — and gives a glimpse into some of the songs and inspiration for this new album.

Produced by Wainwright, with a little help from Poses producer, Pierre Marchand, All Days are Night features only Rufus’s vocals and the piano on nine original compositions, adaptations of three of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the final aria from his opera. I’ve read many reviews that are calling it a “stripped down sound,” but I think that Rufus makes piano and vocal sound just as grand as any of his records with a full band, maybe more.

Of the original songs on the album, I’m most keen on “Who Are You New York?” which was allegedly first intended for a film, but rejected by the movie’s producers; “Martha,” which is a very personal song consisting of conversational lyrics aimed at Wainwright’s sister, Martha (this song has special meaning for me now due to a difficult family situation I’ve been dealing with the past few weeks); “The Dream,” and “Zebulon,” which I first heard during the Prima Donna documentary.

Then there are the adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets. When I heard Rufus discuss the theatrical collaboration based on the sonnets during the Prima Donna documentary, I was very excited — and jealous of anyone who got to see it because the clips they showed looked amazing. When I learned he would be placing three of his sonnet adaptations on this record, I was giddy. You see, I was an English major and classic, British lit was my favorite thing to read for a long time, particularly Shakespeare. The three sonnets Wainwright has chosen to set to music are three of my favorites — I wrote a fairly lengthy essay on “Sonnet 20” for one of my English classes in college. Wainwright’s arrangements on these are simple and gorgeous and enhance the beauty of Shakespeare’s words. Of the three, I find myself most drawn to “Sonnet 43.”

Lastly, there’s the aria from Prima Donna, “Les Feux D’Artifice T’appellent.” When I first heard it, I didn’t make the connection that this was the aria, but I instantly loved it. My favorite thing about the track is the sound effects — to simulate the sound of fireworks that happen during the opera, Wainwright taps on the piano’s sounding board and runs his hands over its strings. It’s a gorgeous piece on its own and makes me want to see the opera even more than I did before.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I adore this album. It’s not as accessible as most of his other work, but I like that about it — it’s a difficult record to listen to because of how personal it is. But if you connect with it like I did, you will get goosebumps with every listen.