Despite its title, Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu is perhaps the least gregarious concept album in the history of music, a fact made more amazing when one considers the wounded-voiced singer’s penchant for lush, heavy-handed art postures. Inspired in part by a handful of obscure Shakespearean works, the songs on All Days are unrelenting in their starkness and singularity, and yet remain typical Wainwright fare: both cabaret and melancholy, not to mention self-deprecating and ultimately gorgeous. Key moments, such as “When Most I Wink,” are smoky, prodding journeys that play to their creator’s strengths, alternately downtrodden and foreboding as Wainwright’s voice snakes around the ever-moving chord changes of a lone piano.
Amid all the album’s offerings, rare insight into uninhibited, self-reflective artistry is perhaps the most interesting. “The Dream” finds Wainwright in his comfort zone—yearning, with bloodied heart on sleeve and melodramatic pinings somehow abandoning their clichéd limitations. Here listeners are allowed to capture him as perhaps All Days intends: alone and oblivious at an old piano in some abandoned concert hall, free to nurture the naked insecurity of his talent. “Freedom’s apparently all I need,” Wainwright sings on “Zebulon,” perhaps acknowledging the album’s casting off of more complex arrangements and accompaniments for ever-trickling piano melodies.
Still, All Days remains deceptively complex, no matter its stream-of-consciousness flow and sparse instrumentation. Though subtle, the projected image of Wainwright sitting at a piano merely playing as his whims dictate veils a traditional melodic sensibility. A lyrically obvious, backhanded ode to his sister, “Martha” finds Wainwright applying the formless key running of the album’s other tracks to conventional verse and melody structures. Perhaps one of Wainwright’s most personal works (a rumination on the weighty burdens of his famous family), the song strikes an idealized balance between loose improvisation and musical purpose that the rest of the album struggles to capture.