No Rufus Wainwright record since has come close to the authenticity and vulnerability of Poses.
As far as musical euphemisms go, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is by far my favourite. Correctly assuming that title would be far more palatable to a broader audience than “Crystal Meth and Anonymous Sex”, Rufus Wainwright set his sing-song paean to decadence and addiction as the opening number of Poses, the follow-up to his 1998 self-titled debut. A little bit older and a little bit harder than its predecessor, Poses boasts some of the best songwriting of Wainwright’s twenty-year career, and is arguably the most satisfying album start-to-finish in his catalogue.
Drawing on the characters, personalities, and experiences Wainwright collected during his time at New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel, Poses is a set of polaroids and portraits thematically centred around fame, the fast life, and finding one’s way out of dependency. “Grey Gardens” introduced me to Edith and Edith Beale — the mother and daughter subjects of Albert and David Maysles’s 1975 documentary Grey Gardens — two formerly fabulous women who lived among New York’s elite, now recluses in their derelict mansion in the Hamptons. The string-soaked “Evil Angel” recounts a romantic encounter with an opportunistic journalist who disappeared as quickly as he seduced. “Greek Song” beautifully conveys breathless enchantment with physical beauty through its operatic melody and unconventional string arrangements.
For all Wainwright’s orchestral predilections and and pop-star posturing, the essence of Poses is distilled in its two simplest arrangements: “Poses”, its title track, and Wainwright’s cover of “One Man Guy”, written by his father Loudon Wainwright III. The former finds Wainwright reflective and sombre, sitting behind his piano, playing the most gorgeous melody of his career while lamenting his whirlwind pursuit of fame, celebrity, and a sense of self-worth. The latter a most earnest, heart-bursting version that transforms a song about self-dependence and living in solitude into an internal dialogue, a personal reckoning of the soul. Backed by his sister Martha Wainwright on vocals and friend Teddy Thompson (prodigy of Richard and Linda Thompson) on guitar, “One Man Guy” finds Wainwright sounding sober, sincere, and vulnerable, and is effectively the album’s cornerstone. Subsequent albums would get more ornate and elaborate, but no Rufus Wainwright record since has come close to the authenticity, sincerity, and vulnerability of Poses.