Rufus Wainwright – Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of “Poses”
The Album First Came Out on June 5, 2001
Oct 28, 2021
When singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright burst onto the scene with his eponymous 1998 debut, the 24-year-old son of folk giant Loudon Wainwright III surprised audiences and critics with his powerful vocals and solid songwriting abilities, successfully stepping out from beneath the looming shadow of his father. With Jon Brion and Van Dyke Parks as contributors, and Lenny Waronker as an executive producer, the star-studded Rufus Wainwright earned the young musician his first Juno Award the following year, placing him on the radar of a broader audience.
Two years later, Wainwright was holed up in New York, plagued by an ongoing addiction to crystal meth, and attempting to one-up the debut release that had brought him fame and creative liberation. He inhabited the Chelsea Hotel for six months, writing the brunt of his sophomore album in the midst of this personal crisis and his continued efforts to cope. It was released in June 2001 as Poses.
While not as commercially successful as its predecessor, Wainwright’s second offering only served to further his reputation among critics, earning him yet another Juno Award, as well as a nomination for Solo Artist of the year by GQ, Outstanding Music Album at the GLAAD Media Awards, and was later named one of Mojo’s 100 Modern Classics. Poses is an intriguing album, never hesitating to take risks, hopping genres and exploring a multitude of emotions.
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” opens the album on a sprightly note, with Wainwright declaring the titular vices as “just a couple of [his] cravings.” As Wainwright has confirmed, the track is representative of addiction as a whole, masking the gathering darkness within himself behind a lively whimsy on this deceitfully charming fan favorite.
Poses most certainly does not abandon Wainwright’s penchant for decadence and modern melodrama, instead refining his ability to craft coyly seductive baroque pop numbers, with “Greek Song” being a prime example and standout track, and ultimately one of the greatest of Wainwright’s career. Featuring a flourish of Asian string arrangements and a dobro played by Wainwright himself, the dreamlike ode to wanderlust and spurned romance between strangers is written in the ornate neo-classic verse unique to Wainwright, contributing to the atmosphere of the album’s diverse soundscape. The album’s haunting eponymous track follows, carrying with it a heavy wintry chill as a hungover Wainwright reviews snapshots of his undoing. This is one of the strongest cuts, setting the mood for much of the album. In contrast, the sunny fairytale “California” and melancholy “Rebel Prince” testify to Wainwright’s fascination with the fantasy narratives and medieval imagery upon which he would elaborate on his subsequent Want project.
A major standout on Poses is Wainwright’s authoritative rendition of “One Man Guy,” originally written and recorded by his father in 1985. Despite its status as a cover, this is one of Wainwright’s finest recordings, offering a contrast between two generations of highly skilled songwriters, and serving as an effective meeting point between them. The sinisterly orchestral “Evil Angel” demonstrates Wainwright’s ability to experiment through his fusion of strings and an abrasive trip hop beat, while the spare piano ballad “In a Graveyard” is, despite its brief length, a genuine masterpiece. This bleak meditation on mortality finds Wainwright delivering the line “Wandering properties of death/Arresting moons within our eyes and smiles we did rest”—once again serving as yet another reminder of his status as one of modern music’s most intimate lyricists.
Typically considered one of Wainwright’s highest points, Poses—while not quite reaching the level of ingenuity seen on 2003’s Want One, which itself pales in comparison to 2004’s majestic Want Two—is easily one of the most pristinely original and highly recommendable pop releases of the ’00s. Entirely deserving of the praise it receives, Poses finds a young Wainwright at a turning point in both his career and personal life—he would become sober the following year and continue to gain traction as a major American artist over the following decade. Poses, as with all of his early catalogue, remains worth revisiting all these years later, as even now, it sounds so fresh. What is heard on Poses still cannot be imitated, allowing Wainwright to maintain his well-earned status as a persevering elder statesman of 21st Century pop.
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