UNFOLLOW THE RULES finds Rufus Wainwright at the peak of his powers, entering artistic maturity with passion, honesty and a new-found fearlessness, while remaining as mischievous as ever. Recorded in the same legendary Los Angeles studios as his landmark debut, his ninth album is both a bookend to Act 1 of an extraordinary career and a distillation of 21 years of experience at pop’s most flamboyant coal face.
Inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon, UNFOLLOW THE RULES captures Rufus at a crossroads. Ready to tackle new challenges, yet compelled to confront his past, he’s taking stock of two decades of running riot with rules, making sense of how he has matured as a musician and celebrating the contended family man he has become.
That wisdom is reflected in twelve, spectacular songs, all classics from first listen which couldn’t have been written in any previous period of Rufus’s life. His years spent composing operas and classical music, his swerve in to singing Shakespeare sonnets, his hundreds of jaw-dropping concerts, his drive to persistently push the definition of pop to its limits and his happiness at home with his husband, Jorn, and his near eight year old daughter (the bright mind responsible for the album’s title) are among the experiences instrumental to the music.
The twelve songs, in fact, began as life lines. Written during a six-year, self-imposed exile from pop when Rufus was immersed in other projects, in particular his 2018 opera Hadrian, he retreated to songwriting to save his sanity and remind himself that making music should be fun.
The results of that trade-off are exquisite, yet unexpected. UNFOLLOW THE RULES may be a bookend to 1998’s Rufus Wainwright – which saw the musician hailed Best New Artist by Rolling Stone – recorded in historic studios with strings, woodwind and some of the world’s greatest session musicians, but sonically it’s Rufus at his most focussed and distilled.
Much of the album was recorded live, often in one take. There is no instrumental excess baggage. Rufus’ resplendent vocals are at both their soaring best and most exposed, throwing the focus on to his phrasing and allowing the melodies to unfold and take flight.
Largely recorded at Sound City Studios with a cast which included veterans from Rufus’s debut (notably drummer Jim Keltner), guitarist Blake Mills and pianist Randy Kerber, the sessions were unusually swift.