Dec 3, 2003 at 12:00 am

It’s hard to define the exact moment when fame starts to make a person ugly. It sneaks up. Maybe it’s that we, the masses of no-talent, fatty, artless plebeians, are just too busy plunging toilets, making car payments and changing diapers to see it coming. We only pay attention when it becomes so assaulting that we can’t ignore it anymore.

When Rufus Wainwright launches into his third full-length record, Want, with “Oh, What a World,” the curtain rises on an aural stage set with everything his career has taught us to expect: A huge pop melody in layered harmonies, ornamented with symphonic snippets of Bernstein and Ravel, delivered with his characteristic, compellingly bitchy flair. On first listen there appears to be everything that we shelled out the 15 bucks for.

But sound the alarm: if Want is any indication, fame is altering Rufus Wainwright. It’s making him ugly. It’s making him content to lean on the crutch of his own celebrity. Though it’s dressed in the sheep’s clothing of Wainwright’s history, it never touches the high standards that landed him on fame’s podium in the first place.

The second track, “I Don’t Know What It Is,” is as big as a pop song can be, ending in an unrestrained cacophony of distorted guitars, strings and French horns. But, like so many songs here, the tune itself ultimately buckles under the burden of the enormous orchestration.

Want isn’t without redeeming tracks. With its loose meter and confessional bent, “Pretty Things” is a glimpse of the Wainwright who earned his keep — sharply observant, literate, poetic, subtle. In what could be the record’s best one-liner he begs, “Be a star and fall down somewhere next to me,” in a nasal tenor. The halfway mark is highlighted with the gem “Vibrate,” where Wainwright innocently pines for a phone call from a crush. Set over a delicate pizzicato line, it has enough coy wit to bring to mind the baroque pop miniatures of his debut.

But any intimacy elicited by “Vibrate” is lost immediately on “14th Street,” a 6/8 barn burner that finishes in a grinding Tin Pan Alley kick line. Three tracks later, when Want delivers another huge effort with “Beautiful Child,” the enormous choir and trumpeted decoration have lost their power. He’s blown his proverbial wad. It’s more of a cityscape movie set than a real city.

It’s sad that Want shows Wainwright slipping to fame’s ugly side, celebrity. It’s sad that he seems bored. It’s sad that it offers a collection of songs hastily penned between relentless touring and drug rehab. But what’s saddest is that beneath the garish orchestration and lightweight lyrics there’s only a shred of the clever, ingenious song craft that got us to pay attention in the first place.


Rufus Wainwright will perform Thursday, Dec. 4, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit). Call 313-961-MELT for info.

E-mail Nate Cavalieri at [email protected].