Rufus Wainwright has always existed in a world unto himself, the sort of place where Cole Porter, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and Ian Anderson could all share a sherry and muse on love and literature. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but somehow, he’s always been able to pull off sounding blithe and totally earnest at the same time — two moods that only seem work in a Venn diagram where he’s in the middle.
Unfollow the Rules, Wainwright’s ninth album of original music, is a typically grand and jazzy affair with syrupy, smartly orchestrated songs of escapism, custom-hewn for people who think Burt Bacharach is too edgy and held together by Wainwright’s sweetly whining voice. It’s his dulcet manner, though, that makes lines like “Wish I was sarcastic, but I’m feeling it,” which he sings over jaunty piano on “Romantical Man,” sound convincing. And just as he suggests in that song, sincerity is what he does best. So you believe him when he sings, “I pray that your face is the last I’ll see on a peaceful afternoon,” on the album’s best track, “Peaceful Afternoon,” which would sound Leonard Cohen-y with its swaying acoustic guitar and airy backup vocals were it not for Wainwright’s cutting voice. And when he sings, “Love dies, go on and say it with your eyes,” on the weepy “Only the People That Love,” you want to cry for him.
As with Wainwright’s best works, it’s musical theater without the theater (remember, he once interpolated the theme from Phantom of the Opera on Release the Stars’ “Between My Legs”) and it comes with all of the good and bad that comes with stage drama. “You Ain’t Big” would sound a bit like the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” with its dixie-jazz–influenced folk, as he croons, “You ain’t big unless you’re big in Alabama, don’t know who you are unless you made it in Wichita,” if he didn’t sing it with a smirk. And “Unfollow the Rules” loses itself in schmaltz. But of course, that’s the point. It’s a lush, grandiose place to be if you’re looking to get lost.