The “best of” is a tricky conceit in the music world. Forget for a moment the basic conversation about what tracks to include from a multi-record career—do you try to represent the records as a whole body of work? do you just include the “hits”?—and consider the more poignant question of when to release such a collection. What benchmark of fame do you have to attain before a “best of” is desired or acceptable? In a day and age where pop stars with a handful of records and a few Top Ten songs get multi-track “greatest hits” releases complete with b-sides and live bonuses, the “best of” is losing steam as a sacrosanct concept. It’s less of an opportunity for an artist to distill their output into a single listening experience and more of a money grab. See: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, The Backstreet Boys, and their ilk.
Funny enough, 1998—when Britney et. al began their hostile takeover of the mainstream radio—is the very same year that a little-known Canadian chanteur named Rufus Wainwright released his self-titled debut, after gaining a following in the Montreal club scene and coming to the attention of superproducer Jon Brion. As Britney was urging us to hit her, baby, one more time from every cultural streetcorner, Wainwright floated a strange, lovely, fully-realized record of chamber pop. Even funnier enough that years later Wainwright referenced the Princess of Pop herself on “Vibrate”, a track from his opus Want One that also serves as the title for Wainwright’s new best-of release. As the late ‘90s bubblegum revolution has waxed, waned, and mutated into a landscape of EDM facsimiles and Mumford knock-offs, Wainwright has slowly but surely built a discography filled with songs that are cinematic as they are idiosyncratic.
Wainwright has commanded the spotlight but seems content to let it swing away from him at times. He strikes one as a celebrity and artist at peace with the level of fame and exposure he already possesses. This supposition is further borne out when you consider Vibrate: The Best Of Rufus Wainwright’s track listing. Wainwright could have put together a collection that put his most accessible face forward, easing in new and casual listeners who, intrigued by his poppier leanings, might delve into the records themselves and discover his weirder side. Instead, Wainwright seems to have adopted the strategy of painting a picture that represents his aesthetic accomplishments as thoroughly as possible. What this means is that fan-favorite songs you might expect to hear on a mixtape—the sunny guitar riff of “California”, or the dance hall swing of “14th Street”—are missing in favor of more serious, stolid songs like “Dinner at Eight” or “Sometimes You Need.” Vibrate can best be described as a rather stern collection of songs, though Wainwright did see fit to include two of his most iconic tracks, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “Go or Go Ahead”, from Poses and Want One, respectively.
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is possibly the most recognizable, most quintessential Rufus Wainwright song. The combination of his swaying melody lines, the half-heartedly jaunty piano, and the lyrics evoke a bemused world-weariness, the outlook of a person no longer as excited by his addictions as he is albatrossed by them. Something about “Cigarettes”’s different elements combine to perfectly capture the feeling of a “morning after”, blinking at the linoleum, wondering how the house got in such a state, and unable to find the motivation to do much about it except sit smoking at the breakfast table. It’s a feeling that Wainwright explores more than once in his discography, but what distinguishes it from similar, more navel-gazing sorts of songwriting is a healthy sense of his own ridiculous participation in his lack of recovery, a bitter awareness of his self destructive tendencies that make them easier to swallow, musically. It’s a feeling that we can all relate to—even the most delusional among us have moments where we see our complicity in our own negative experiences all too clearly—and for that reason the song has remained one of Wainwright’s most famous and most requested.
“Go or Go Ahead” isn’t as well-known as “Cigarettes” but it should be. The only word that seems fit to describe Wainwright’s ambitious 2003 record Want One is “majestic”, and “Go” encapsulates that quality. A simple guitar riff and a restrained, desultory vocal slowly build over six-plus minutes into a thundering cacophony of strings, electric guitar, and choral backing vocals. Wainwright fairly bellows, “Go, or go ahead and surprise me!” It’s a storm-cloud send off whose dynamic contrasts mirror the emotional state that comes with resigning oneself to a breakup, swinging from quiet resignation to fury and despair on protesting hinges.
With those two tentpoles in place, the rest of the track list proceeds puzzlingly. Wainwright’s cover of “Hallelujah” is famous for being featured in the soundtrack of the first Shrek movie but isn’t among his most stunning, affecting vocals. Songs like the easy, breezy “Out of the Game” or “Sometimes You Need” seem slight stacked next to dense, complex songs like “Go or Go Ahead”, and strangely the cuts from his self-titled debut—“Foolish Love” and “April Fools”—sound dated and unrefined listened to in the larger context of what he’s achieved in the interim. On the other hand, the irrepressible bounce of “I Don’t Know What It Is”—another highlight from Want One—helps liven up the second half of the track list. And of course there’s always the title track from 2001’s Poses, the album largely considered to be Wainwright’s “breakthrough” and, other than “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, the most efficient abstract of the lust, jadedness, and melancholy that twine through Wainwright’s best songs.
One particular surprise is new track “Me and Liza,” featured on Vibrate’s main disc and pushed as a promotional single for the collection. Wainwright critics tend to brush his music off as sonorous and somnambulent, and that’s a fair criticism when leveled at certain swathes of his discography. However, the singer’s more energetic side is very much in evidence on “Me and Liza”, a mid-tempo toe-tapper that shows off two of Wainwright’s most potent musical gifts: his penchant for lyrics that manage to be both wry and beautiful, and his flair for theatrical, memorable melodies. By the time the chorus punches in, with Wainwright sailing up into his higher registers to deliver the striking lines “blowing on the embers of fame/ burning down the house of your name”, the fact that Wainwright is singing about icon Liza Minnelli seems almost beside the point.
The deluxe edition of Vibrate is tailored more specifically to well-versed Rufus fans; it includes a second disc of unreleased tracks along with demos and live cuts. Particular standouts include “One Man Guy” live at KCRW in 2001 (a cover of a song by Wainwright’s famous father, Loudon) and “Jericho” live at the Artists’ Den in 2012.
The years have been kind to Wainwright. For an artist who used to write arch confessionals about misfiring romance, drug use, and grasping for what constitutes real “happiness”, his personal life is filled with accomplishment over the last few years: marriage, a child, etc. As a result, the frustrated yearning that used to power his songs has largely disappeared over his last two releases. It’s a mistake to think that only suffering people can create interesting art, and yet in the case of Wainwright there was a tension in his recordings that is missing from his most contemporary efforts. Conversely, there’s a bittersweet wisdom in his newer songs—a quiet celebration of knowledge hard-won and love fiercely defended—that doesn’t shine through in his older work. In that sense, there was probably never a better time for Wainwright to release this kind of collection, a look back at what he’s accomplished over the last fifteen years and a re-centering of himself before he moves forward. There are definitely tracks that were passed over that would have made for a more varied and exciting collection; despite that, Vibrate does contain some of his very best songs, and for the devoted fan, the deluxe edition is unbeatable. It’s a celebration of the unique, mournful, self-deprecating music of Rufus Wainwright, and, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, not a bad place to start.