The soundtrack to Dreamworks’ cinematic genius, Shrek was my gateway to Wainwright. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s seminal, ‘Hallelujah,’ was an emotional rendition, dramatic to the core. It was the perfect preface to Wainwright’s 2003 release, Want One – an album bursting with theatrical lyrics and musical variety unlike anything else released at that time. It was flamboyantly fun, energetic, and provided an honest insight into Wainwright’s thoughts during this period. Thirteen years have passed, his pop inclinations have been quenched, his tastes have expanded and opera and literature are, today, the keystones to his career.
It has been a busy year for momentous anniversaries too, especially in the literary world. Wainwright celebrates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with his latest offering, Take My Loves – 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. This album has been in the making, inadvertently, since 2009 when Wainwright was approached by director Robert Wilson to set some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated sonnets to music. We have already been acquainted with Sonnets 10, 20, and 43 – they appeared graciously on Wainwright’s 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. These versions are considerably different to their 2016 reincarnations. Those compositions were pared back, the sole musical companion to Wainwright’s alluring and powerful voice is a piano. They remain beautiful, highly emotive and untouchable compositions.
Collaborating with Wainwright on this tribute album is Marius de Vries, producer of Want One, Want Two (2004) – he was also involved in the mixing of 2007’s, Release The Stars. A promising beginning, on paper perhaps. Take All My Loves is not a particularly easy or enticing album to listen to in its entirety. While Shakespeare’s language is undoubtedly beautiful, it is also challenging especially to those not fully versed in the bard’s lingual stylistics. Heavily produced, ambitious and densely layered songs crashing with orchestral tsunamis are, at times, testing. ‘Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)’, is a perfect example of musical self-indulgence that menaces the album’s potential. Joining Rufus in the song are Helena Bonham Carter and Martha Wainwright, who compete against angst ridden (and somewhat dated) guitar and drum compositions, only to momentarily shift in pace halfway through. It is disconcerting. Florence Welch features also, taking the lead on ‘When In Disgrace With Fortune And Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29)’. It is a typical Florence style composition, light and airy, uncomplicated and harmless to the ear. It provides a much needed aural reprieve.
In the midst of the songs – sometimes causing discomfort to the flow of the album – Carrie Fisher, William Shatner and Peter Eyre interject with spoken performances of the Shakespearean sonnets in their distinguished and familiar voices. These sonnets are then given the Wainwright operatic treatment – strings, piano and wind instruments accompany Austrian soprano, Anna Prohaska, a prominent player throughout the album.
‘A Woman’s Face – Reprise (Sonnet 20)’, is one of the rare occasions where Rufus is fully present, and is, in turn, the stand out moment on the album. A soft composition that harks back to the earlier part of his career, a reminder of why his fans fell in love with his ingenuity. However, you cannot help but long for the innocence and vulnerability of the All Days Are Nights versions of the sonnets. This is where the frustration with the unnecessary theatrical treatment throughout All My Loves lies.
In sum, All My Loves feels more like a cinematic soundtrack than a tribute album, which questions the sincerity of the celebration of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Had Wainwright maintained the beautiful simplicity of his original treatment of these works in 2010, then All My Loves could have been a very different album.