Rufus Wainwright cheekily kicks off his fifth album, Release the Stars, with "Do I Disappoint You?," a bombastically symphonic song that recalls his previous albums, Want One from 2003 and Want Two from 2004. That title question is ostensibly directed toward a lover, but it might as well be posed to fans and critics frustrated by his departure from post-SoCal folk rock and the increasingly dreamy indulgences of his operatic leanings. Like those two previous albums, "Do I Disappoint You?" replaces guitars with rococo orchestrations and catchy choruses with soaring Valkyries, exaggerating pop emotions to operatic proportions.
What might have seemed like a restless artist's diversion turns out to be a sea change for Wainwright, as Release the Stars makes abundantly clear with that immediate rhetorical question. Release the Stars, which was produced by Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, retains the overreaching sweep of its predecessors. These songs lumber instead of glide. "Between My Legs" begins as a yearning ode to a faraway lover, but Wainwright piles on the music, ending the song with a "Thriller"-style narration and the central theme from Phantom of the Opera.
This is an unfortunate turn. On his early releases, Wainwright's openly gay sensibilities threatened to upend many of the clichés of the singer-songwriter genre he was born into. (His father is Loudon Wainwright III; his mother is Kate McGarrigle.) He was never a natural fit in that field, but the awkwardness gave his laments extra gravity. Lately, fronting an orchestra instead of a band, he trades his barbed wit for indulgent camp, which is a surefire recipe for disappointment. — Stephen Deusner