Rufus Wainwright must have one hell of a rolodex. In addition to his mother and sister, Release the Stars sports appearances by Teddy and Richard Thompson, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, Jeff Buckley bandmates Joan Wasser and Matt Johnson, John Medeski, and various other hipster celebs, and, not surprisingly, the album sometimes suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen. About half of the tracks boast a full orchestra, which nearly drowns out Wainwright’s crooning and entirely obliterates Richard Thompson’s guitar work. If the arrangements were are smart as those on Joanna Newsom’s Ys, it’d be one thing, but the flutes and bassoons and stuff flitter and swoop predictably, sounding more like Metallica’s dreadful S&M. Opener “Do I Disappoint You” disappoints: it’s supposed to sound bombastic, but it just sounds muddled. The smaller songs are more successful, giving Rufus a little more room to swoon and vamp.
Wainwright has never been exactly shy about his sexuality, but lately his flamboyance has been so flashy that he makes Jack on Will & Grace look like Lee Marvin. He’s clearly having fun dressing as an Arthurian damsel on the cover of Want Two and performing a song-by-song cover of Judy Garland’s iconic Carnegie Hall performance, but Wainwright’s temperament is better suited to playing a weary cabaret singer or aging dandy than a queer superstar. Stars‘s quieter ballads, like the sweet “Nobody’s Off The Hook” and the minimalistic “Leaving For Paris No. 2” best approach the wistful flirtiness of past triumphs like “Grey Gardens” and “Greek Song.”
Both those songs were on 2001’s Poses, the album where his blend of operatic elegance and pop standards flowed most seamlessly. The double volume Want One and Want Two faltered a bit due to their pomposity, but worked because there was something irresistible about the bizarre hugeness of songs like “Gay Messiah.” Release the Stars, on the other hand, sounds a bit too schizophrenic, like Wainwright can’t decide whether the album should be his most or least elaborate yet, so it feels more like a collection of tracks than a cohesive work. Sure, the tracks are often great (both “Between My Legs” and “Slideshow” are among his best songs), but the album itself is merely good.