"If music be the food of love, play on,/ Give me excess of it,” commands Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And to celebrate today’s 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Rufus Wainwright has obliged, decking out a selection of sonnets in a dazzling array of musical genres from high opera, through grungey rock, sweet Seventies pop, minimalist piano ballads, world trance and Berlin cabaret.
Those who have always found the Canadian singer-songwriter’s baroque pop over-egged and theatrical must suspect this is the album which will clinch their argument. Even as a fan, I read the list of contributors with a mixture of excitement and concern: Siân Phillips, Florence Welch, Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Eyre and – yikes! – William Shatner? Had Wainwright boldly gone too far this time?
Not at all. All My Loves turns out to be a box of delights: an album whose constantly shifting moods, romantic melodies and sly twists of musical wit are a perfect fit for the swoons, spite and slick conceits of the poems. The fluidity of gender, age and nationality of the voices delivering the spoken word sections give texture to the sound and universality to the emotions. There’s always something surprising around the corner: at the end, Sonnet 87 is delivered by the 92-year-old East German actress Inge Keller.
Wainwright’s interest in the sonnets dates back more than a decade, when the late composer Michael Kamen commissioned him to score Sonnet 29 (When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes). Director Robert Wilson asked for more music for a 2009 theatre piece, then the San Francisco Symphony called on him to orchestrate five more sonnets, three of which appeared on Wainwright’s 2010 album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu. The gorgeous resignation of his take on A Woman’s Face was a stand-out track. As a gay man who once told me he always goes “for straight drug addicts”, he inhabited every line of Sonnet 20, in which the poet laments that since Nature has “prick’d out” a beautiful young man’s body for women’s pleasure, he must settle for friendship.
The song is given two treatments here: early on there’s an elegant, classical delivery by Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska, all that yearning corseted up by the lofty control of her courtly art. It’s then brought up to date in a sighed pop version by Wainwright. Producer Marius de Vries suspends the weary piano and pavement pounding drums in slightly psychedelic synth effects. Shatner’s part is also pretty trippy, while Welch turns in a surprisingly delicate performance on a sugar pop setting of When in Disgrace, which almost turns into ABBA’s Chiquitita towards the end.
De Vries has form with modernising Shakespeare: he worked as a composer and producer on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Here he does a great job splicing Wainwright’s restless style shifts into a coherent sonic adventure.
There are a few awkward moments when Wainwright struggles to shoehorn the Shakespeare into the tunes. And others when he over-clutters the music. But he’s so playful, inventive and heartfelt that even though this album clocks in at 55 minutes, he leaves you wanting him to play on and on. (