The Latest from Rufus Wainwright

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In this age of overproduced, poorly written pop it's easy to forget what makes listening to a pop song pure pleasure: the songwriting. To say that Rufus Wainwright is one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation is not an overstatement. The 27-year-old son of famed folk singer Loudon Wainwright III took six months off last year after touring for his first album, got a cozy room in the Chelsea Hotel, brought in a piano and started living the glamorous life. When I first listened to Poses I was unsure whether I'd appreciate the moody meanderings of this young, openly gay singer. Soon enough I was hooked.

The music on Poses is lovely precisely because it's the anti-Britney. While the teen temptress is all about commercialism and overwrought, Vocoder-enhanced melodies, Rufus Wainwright has personality and class. In his sweet, crooning voice he sings about love and the perils of urban life, while making some prescient observations about gay culture?or at least Chelsea boys?as in these lines from the title track: "There's never been such grave a matter/As comparing our new brand name black sunglasses/All these poses, such beautiful poses." An old-style romantic whose soulful voice and poetic lyrics are tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism, Wainwright has put together a second album full of guitar- and piano-laden tracks and catchy melodies.

The first track, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," details the many trappings of an excessive lifestyle. The first single, "California," is a folksy-sounding tribute to the seedy truths hidden underneath the surface of our superficial, plastic urban playgrounds. Wainwright's reading of his father's paean to self-reliance, "One Man Guy," with vocal support from sister Martha and fellow folk singer Teddy Thompson, takes on an entirely new meaning when it's sung by a gay man. Wainwright clearly fell in and out of love?or lust?while living in New York, and he sings about yearning for salvation in "Rebel Prince." The unbridled romanticism of "Tower of Learning" builds ever so slowly to a climax that makes you want to crank up the volume on your Discman. It's pure joy.

Poses proves that Wainwright has come into his own as a musician. It takes serious talent and more than a little self-confidence to write these beautiful songs that elegantly bare his soul and depict the contradictory impulses of gay life. The melodies on Poses are heartbreakingly sad, yet sweetly optimistic. Wainwright's blessed with a voice that soars high or lingers longingly on certain notes, resonating well after each song stops playing. Eschewing computerized vocal enhancement, he's added exotic instrumentation to the mix. Smooth, wry and ironically detached, he pulls off a modern album with an old-fashioned feel that never becomes self-consciously retro. All in all, it's impossible to imagine a better sophomore effort than Poses. Every song is good and more than half the tracks are superb. Listening to him wax wistfully about loneliness or broken dreams is sheer delight. One of the darker tracks, "In a Graveyard," closes with Wainwright singing, "Then along the bending path away/I smiled in knowing I'd be back one day." Any fan of great songwriting will eagerly await his return.

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