Get local news delivered straight to your phone

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

The first track on Rufus Wainwright’s new Want One, “Oh What a World,” demonstrates exactly what happens when the singer loses his sense of balance: Layered on a foundation of horns that build ever so methodically to an overwrought crescendo, the self-indulgent mess is unsatisfying as an operetta and just plain irritating as a rock song. On his past albums, the Montreal-born singer-songwriter’s various signature styles—the unapologetically theatrical orchestrations, the lyrics that mix neediness with pride, the soaring, vaguely decadent vocals—usually brought him to the edge of disaster without quite pushing him over. But the new disc’s bit of wobbliness shouldn’t be surprising: Want One, after all, is Wainwright’s rehab record, coming on the heels of an emotional collapse and a monthlong stay at Hazelden for methamphetamine addiction. By the lights of almost all of its songs, life has clearly slowed down for Wainwright, a state of being he trenchantly summarizes on “Vibrate”: “I tried to dance to Britney Spears/It seems I’m getting on in years.” It’s a good thing, then, that this onetime bard of the Chelsea boys seems to consider his newly measured pace something of a blessing. Whereas on his self-titled 1998 debut and its follow-up, 2001’s Poses, he came off as overly eager to impress, luxuriating in (and bragging about) such pleasures as being “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue,” here he’s subtler, less caricatured, and altogether more human. “I don’t want to make it rain/I just want to make it simple,” he sings in the sparse, slow-burning “Want,” just a few tracks after promising, “I’m coming back home tomorrow/…I’ll learn how to save, not just borrow” on the comparatively upbeat “14th Street.” By the album-closing “Dinner at Eight,” an emotional retelling of a contentious meal he shared with his father, Loudon Wainwright III, Wainwright has officially served notice that he’s left his illusions behind. “I’m going to break you down and see what you’re worth,” he sings over piano and strings, the target of his reassessment abundantly clear. Miles away from Want One’s overblown opener, this is the rawest Wainwright has ever sounded, and also the best. No longer in thrall to youthful indiscretions and buoyed by a newfound perspective, he’s managed to pull off his most successful balancing act to date. —Brian Montopoli