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Rufus Wainwright - Folkocracy (Album Review)

Friday, 09 June 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Miranda Penn Turin

Never one for ambiguity or subterfuge, and well known for being delightfully tongue in cheek, Rufus Wainwright has been typically open, about why he chose to craft this beautifully executed, guest-heavy set of folk-based covers. In short, he wants to win a Grammy and felt there was more chance of achieving that aim within this genre than the world of pop, where being difficult to define has often worked against him.

Much less calculating than it might sound, ‘Folkocracy’ is also born of a love and understanding of folk music’s rich traditions, which is hardly surprising, given Wainwright’s proud familial history in this arena. With so much knowledge flowing through his veins, the singer displays an authentic and effortless mastery of the form on these judicious, warm-hearted and mellifluous re-workings. 

Produced by the always stellar Mitchell Froom, with tasteful, empathetic arrangements, standards such as Wild Mountain Thyme and Arthur McBride, and ‘modern’ classics like Neil Young’s Harvest and Louis Hardin’s High on a Rocky Ledge, are treated with exactly the right amount of reverence as Wainwright and company add their own contemporary stamp.

The see-sawing vocal sparring between Rufus and John Legend on Peggy Seeger’s Heading for Home gifts its yearning lyric an elevated emotional ache. A take on Charlie Monroe’s Down in the Willow Garden, a brutal, misogynistic murder ballad, betters the original thanks to a more fitting sombre backdrop and Brandi Carlile’s mournful harmonies. Hush Little Baby, featuring Wainwright sisters Lucy and Martha, finds the siblings rebooting an old southern nursery rhyme in splendid fashion. 

There aren’t enough superlatives to do justice to the vocal contributions here. From impressive youngsters such as Madison Cunningham to legends like David Byrne, when it comes to the individual turns and consistently mesmeric harmonising, you’ll be hard pushed to find better performances on any album, in any genre, this year. Wainwright, in particular, flourishes in such an intimate format, his naked vocals a thing of vulnerable beauty on Ewan MacColl’s Alone and Shenandoah. 

But despite its many qualities, ‘Folkocracy’ ultimately falls short as an album due to the laid back tempo of most songs and some inappropriate inclusions. Aside from a joyous take on The Mamas & the Papas Twelve-Thirty, with glorious harmonies courtesy of Susanna Hoffs, Chris Stills and Sheryl Crow, the rest is too one paced and, over the course of 15 songs and 60 minutes, things begin to drag. Some classically stirring folk numbers, the kind that galvanise activists with their message, wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Elsewhere, there are moments that stretch the aesthetic—see an overly theatrical take on Van Dyke Parks’ Black Gold and a reworking of Schubert’s Nacht und Träume—and connection to folk traditions to breaking point. Equally, a haunting reworking of Wainwright’s own Going to a Town, featuring Anonhi’s ngelic croon, suggests he’s missed a trick here. 

A fine polysemous protest number that reminds us of Rufus’s own songwriting talents, had his knowledge of folk been channelled into an album of similarly powerful self-penned compositions, he could have cleaned up come awards season and added his own mark to both the genre and his family’s generational catalogue.


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