ALBUM REVIEW: Rufus Wainwright – ‘Unfollow The Rules’

Words by Emily Hollitt – AKA Malina Claire

Rufus Wainwrights’ ‘Unfollow The Rules’ was released TODAY (July 10, 2020) via BMG.

With the elements of the greats like Queen, Elton John, Billy Joel and The Beatles, acclaimed songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s 9th studio album captures the same audible vision all these artists represent and more. Detailing his life from the perspective of being in his late 40’s, married and with a daughter, ‘Unfollow The Rules’ details his life with the perspective of an experienced life through the lens of lessons learnt. With the intention of re-defining and redetermining the expectation and facets of pop music, Wainwright combines his years of songwriting expertise and elements of classical or even cinematic music to create a unique mix of intimate thoughts and feelings. Trouble in Paradise opens the record on a steady drum beat and simple vocal melody before a choir of his own voice gentle wallows around his lead lyrics. Layered with different interesting guitar tones and decorated by simple yet complex harmonies, the song is very reminiscent of ‘A Night at the Opera’ era Queen. The bouncy quirkiness of the track follows the mood of the song beautifully, playing out like a movie within itself and opening the record with intrigue.

Hefty acoustic guitar opens Damsel in Distress. “Will you forever be the damsel in distress? Will you forever be a harbinger of loneliness?” he opens. The song plays homage to legendary singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, a favourite artist of his husband, reflecting her music beautifully while also interpreting her style structurally, he creates a beautiful interpretation of the music she created to fit his style and narrative. It features a beautiful high-range string section, reminding me heavily of those in Bjork’s haunting Bachelorette. Title track Unfollow the Rules pulls down the pace of the album to predominately just Wainwright and a piano. His voice circulates mainly in his lower range, differing heavily from the tone of what we’ve heart previously. Halfway through the track atmospheric guitar enters before dissonant strings create a discomforting disconnect with the rest. “Well I’m no Hercules, and this is herculean” he sings repeatedly through the song; “Tomorrow I will just be feeling the pain”. His voice soars high over a fuller more orchestral section with soaring instrumentals and syncopated flutes. “Don’t give me what I want. Just give me what I’m needing.” He sings, reflecting the notion on the tracks prior’s key lines “You got exactly what you wanted. What the hell is that?.”

The album takes a more blues-y feel with You Ain’t Big. Female backing vocals repeat his lines, emanating a 1960’s stylistic feel. This catchy, old timey sounding song gives the listener an emotional break after the weight of the track before, breaking up the album’s themes nicely. Romantical Man focuses the track back to the piano with a simple 4-chord progression. Most of the interest comes from flowing, long-form vocal melody. The bass and plucked strings play the song’s main instrumental hook as atmospheric strings soar beneath his constantly rising and descending vocal melodies.  The song feels like the romantic height of a musical, playing out sweetly as an ode to his love. This same notion follows in Peaceful Afternoon.

“Well it’s coming on to 13 years together, babe. I pray that it’s a…lucky number. Although I know I’ve brought you joy and happiness babe. I’ve also been a fecundly source of anger… ‘Cause it’s all a part of the game… And I pray that your face is the last I see on a peaceful afternoon”

He sings, simply and sweetly summarising the troubles and tribulations of long-term love and why it’s ultimately worth it. As a listener, it is impossible to not feel as though you are in love alongside him. The fast yet gentle pace of the song adds to the overall romanticism of the song.

Only The People That Love follows suit, continuing the romantic theme in this section of the album. Atmospheric guitars, a gentle, driving drumbeat and a simple yet catchy bassline carry the foundation of the song. Acoustic guitars, synths and choir-like backing vocals join as the song progresses to add more texture before heavier strings and piano continue the slow-burning aspect of the track. “Love means go on and do it. Love means go ahead and do it. Love means go on and say it. Love means go ahead and say it”. This One’s For The Ladies (That LUNGE) follows with doubled vocals and a darker, more synth-based tone introducing a new phase for the album. “Come with me, to a wonderous land, where people listen to you plans. Come with me to a wonderous place, where no one stares past your face” he sings invitingly, over a harp and heavenly vocals, feeling almost spiritual. His voice buries itself beneath the noise as the track progresses adding to the tracks overall disconcerting tone. Dark synths, the song’s minor key and the constant backing vocals give the song a complete sonic twist compared to the rest of the record, adding to the diversity of the song as well as the diversity in Wainwright’s songwriting and production.

My Little You continues the darker feel, with messy piano which grows more chaotic yet still minimalistic as the track continues.

Daddy putting on his makeup and wearing black feathers. Mumma wading through the river sticks with all the answers. Back and forth between the living and the dead lipstick glances you, my little you… Don’t let it ever get out here. Tell you what you gotta do here.”

This track remains one of the shortest on the album, lingering on the last lyric and keeping them in the listeners brain before progressing on to Early Morning Madness. The piano in this track comes across somewhat cabaret-like or showman-y. Playing out like a Dresdon Dolls ballad, the song exudes a creepy undertone. “Early morning madness, I’m a perfect man. Early morning sadness, got to get some rest I guess. Gotta take some time to be well. In the early morning longing will dispel, that’s the thing. Just in time for the ting of the dinner bell”. The song keeps the listener engaged with its repetitive lyricism through the unexpected additions of dissonant notes throughout the song. The track grows in and out of complete chaos as he shares his harrowing narrative. The song emanates the feeling of a nightmare, or an episode of sleep paralysis; a lonely or isolating fear or sadness. It’s complex changes and unexpectedness makes it the most intricately produced track on the record.  With a beautiful bleakness, it constantly breaks from chaos to calmness.

Hatred demonstrates his most rhythmically complex track on the record, growing quickly from a spooky piano-based track before rising into a more pop-rock style track. The anger present in the track is evident, playing out the theme you’d hear playing on a montage of a villain. “I’m gonna give myself away to the monstrosity” he sings, giving in to his demons. The song ends on a quick-paced melodic piano, playing a dissonant chord before resolving (and echoing off into dissonance again). Alone Time re-grounds the listener, progressing back to the intimacy of hearing just Rufus and his piano. “I need a little alone time, a little dream time. But don’t worry I will be back baby” he sings gently, he sings about the need for being lost in your own thoughts to recoup. Like the first track, the choir-like backing vocals are made up of his voice. The Queen-like influence is again present clearly, if not just for the sound and placement of the harmonies, inviting a re-listen of the record in its entirety.

‘Unfollow The Rules’ plays itself out in various different parts, like watching 4 movies in one series, segmented accordingly to suit record play through for the full experience. An epic of musical ideas and emotional maturity, it expresses both an inane introspectiveness with also provoking an avid openness and proud vulnerability. In a world full of streaming and singles, Wainwright’s latest record is best enjoyed as a whole.  Dim the lights, grab some wine and let him take you on a cinematic journey through his creative mind.

‘Unfollow the Rules’ is available now on all listening and streaming platforms.

Click HERE for details on the ‘Unfollow The Rules Virtual Record Release Party’ – July 11, 2020.

Follow Rufus Wainwright:

Facebook // Instagram // YouTube // Spotify // SoundCloud

With thanks to On The Map PR

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