Rufus Wainwright is into the double digits of his discography with Unfollow the Rules, but that doesn’t mean he is letting his sound get stale. What Unfollow the Rules can demonstrate, in particular, is that while Wainwright maintains his distinct voice and tone, he is capable of carrying that voice through decades of music.
Wainwright keeps his songs, and this album, fresh by continually playing with styles and genres. He opens Unfollow the Rules with “Trouble in Paradise,” a rhythmic choral-pop song about rich people who have problems too. Wainwright delivers this in his usual dry tone that indicates that there is some humor to be found in his subjects but that Wainwright takes it all seriously. That seriousness, a sort of musical Buster Keaton stone face, serves Wainwright well throughout his work. When he decides to show his hand just a little bit, as in “You Ain’t Big,” a song proclaiming that “you ain’t big unless you’re big in Mississippi” and so on, the self-deprecation comes through charmingly. “God forbid,” Wainwright sings, you’re big “in Eastern California,” or Lawrence, Kansas, where he has performed quite a lot.
In addition to his wry sense of humor, Wainwright sprinkles this album with effortlessly romantic songs. His kind of romance reflects the wisdom that comes with long-term relationships, middle-age, and building a family. Throughout Unfollow the Rules, there is a looseness, supported by a buoyant chorus of voices and songs that unfold in their own time, and this looseness is reflected in the romantic songs as well. “Romantical Man” is the most straightforward, with Wainwright singing in a pop-ballad form about the “waters rising, the forests dying,” but his intention to be “a romantical man” tonight. In this scenario, Wainwright is fully aware of the crowding darkness of the world but has to select the moments to reach for some peace.
“Peaceful Afternoon” is another grounded definition of happiness. In the up-tempo, guitar-centric song, Wainwright sings to his partner of 13 years so far that “I pray that your face is the last I see on a peaceful afternoon.” As one grows older, that’s often the best you can hope for. “My Little You” is a lovely, straightforward address to his daughter, who was “thought of in the dressing room of La Divina.” He tells the child, “don’t let anybody out here/tell you what you gotta do here.” The simplicity of the message conveys the actual depth of feeling beneath it all.
In general, Unfollow the Rules creates an atmosphere of love, kindness, and playfulness. In addition to the more personal songs mentioned above, Wainwright sings an ode to Joni Mitchell and her mythical kind of aura in “Damsel in Distress,” while paying clever homage to a famous Stephen Sondheim tune with “The One’s for the Ladies (THAT LUNGE!).” The latter song updates the subject of “Ladies Who Lunch” to entice difficult, unconventional women to “come with me/to the wondrous land/where people listen to your plan.” While the original Company tune finds a character ruefully lamenting a perpetual cycle, Wainwright celebrates breaking those circles of behavior. When supported by playfully dramatic and angelic music, Wainwright creates this appropriately fantastical and enticing picture of that “wondrous land.”
“Only the People That Love” is another mildly subdued treat among the album’s tracks. Wainwright sings that “only the people that love, may dream/in the world of the silent scream,” as he reminds us that “love means go ahead and do it” and that love dies so we might as well do what loves tells us now. It’s a subtle, rather laidback song that is lifted up by Wainwright’s delivery. It reminds us that the ability to love is a virtue, and can produce some good music besides.
The standout track of the album might appropriately be “Unfollow the Rules.” This song comes early on in the record but is a compelling slow burn of a ballad. It begins unassumingly but gradually unfurls to reveal the semi-epic song that is hidden underneath. Wainwright sings, “Don’t get me what I want/Just give me what I’m needing/I will never know/But perhaps I have a feeling.” That possible feeling is chased throughout Unfollow the Rules. The openness with which Wainwright writes and sings makes every song compelling and somehow relatable. Not every song pops, but each one does contain genuine, unadorned emotion with a healthy dose of humor that makes the listening experience an agreeable one.