THE FAMOUS DOOR MAY 14, 2012
The vice president was not at Rufus Wainwright’s house, I know. Yet the sweet little scene that Joe Biden described on Meet the Press, of infectious warmth in a family with same-sex parents, sounded almost as if it had been taken from the lyrics of the latest Wainwright album, Out of the Game. Released just a week before Biden’s comments (which set off the events that culminated in the President’s endorsement of gay marriage), the album is the bounciest, poppiest, most joyful thing Wainwright has done since his debut in 1998, and he attributes the turn in his music to having a daughter, named Viva, who was born last year. (The birth mother is Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, who is raising the child. Wainwright has called his partner, the arts presenter Jorn Weisbrodt, a “Deputy Dad.”)* Wainwright says the child has already inspired three songs, including the new album’s “Montauk,” a paean to parental love in which Wainwright imagines the girl visiting her aging fathers in the future:
One day you will come to Montauk
And you will see your dad wearing a kimono
And see your other dad pruning roses
Hope you won’t turn around and go
Having recently lost his mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright is keenly aware of the fragility of family, and I admire him for giving voice on his new album not only to the joys of parenthood but also to the jitters that come with knowledge of the ephemerality of those joys. Out of the Game is hardly Wainwright’s most gripping or most distinctive album. Many of the songs are slight, built on thin musical ideas and narrow in lyrical scope. The production, by Mark Ronson, effectively covers up the weaknesses of the material with a gloss taken from the paint can of 1970s' pop. I suspect I’m not the only admirer of Wainwright’s to prefer the darker, more arch work of his single days.
The fact is, when songwriters decide to sing about their little children, the most thrilling music of their career rarely follows. I think immediately of “Baby Mine” by Alison Krauss, “Child of Mine” by Carole King, and even the pretty but doe-eyed “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon, proof that parenthood can turn anyone into Paul McCartney. The awe in which new parents hold their young just doesn’t provide much dramatic tension. Wonder is something precious, for sure; in music, though, it tends to leads to preciousness, and that’s not so wonderful. Still, becoming a family man has brought out something sweet in Rufus Wainwright, and one doesn’t have to be vice president to be touched.
Update: The writer Robert Fiore reminded me this morning that I neglected to mention an acutely relevant song about parenthood: one written a couple of decades ago by the comic singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III for his then-newborn son. It's called “Rufus Is a Titman,” and it failed to be prophetic. I'm furious with myself for having missed the opportunity to end my original post with this:
* Correction: The article originally stated that Wainwright and Weisbrodt are raising the child themselves. We regret the error.