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Rufus Wainwright, Approaching Near-Middle Age, Explains His Songs

To borrow an overused but otherwise well-suited sports trope, Rufus Wainwright prefers to "leave everything on the field."

Or in the recording studio, as the case may be. Known for his wrenching reveries, plainspoken torch songs, and operatic ballads of confession, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter is not one for holding back. The songs, flavored by Wainwright's buttery baritone, conspire to create a disarming illusion of intimacy. To know the music, it seems, is to know the man.

So know thy Rufus. Here are the stories behind some of Wainwright's most personal songs, with commentary by the artist himself.

"Oh What a World": Wainwright says he has no problem with the term "popera," often used to describe his baroque, chamber-based compositions. "There's no denying that opera and pop are ingrained in my oeuvre," he admits. "I think they're two separate issues, but they influence each other." On this standout ballad from the 2003 Want One album, the musician distills his pop-opera style into a sweet-sad rumination on the itinerant gypsy-singer lifestyle.

"Foolish Love": Openly gay since the age of 14, Wainwright frequently sings about love, requited or otherwise. File this track from his self-titled 1998 debut album firmly under "otherwise." Infatuated with a mystery man — later identified as radio producer Jon W. Knowles — young Wainwright pines in vain: "So I walk without care / Beat my stare . . . Oh, all for the sake of a foolish love." Future infatuations would prove more fruitful; Wainwright's 2007 song "Tiergarten" is about his longtime boyfriend, German art dealer Jorn Weisbrodt.

"Memphis Skyline": Wainwright has met a few tragic flame-outs in his day. "Matinee Idol" from Rufus Wainwright was about River Phoenix. And this torchy ode was written in honor of late musician Jeff Buckley, whom Wainwright met just a few months before Buckley drowned in Memphis' Wolf River. It's also one of Wainwright's favorite tracks from his Want Two album (2004). "I thought that was a great, serious album," he says. "And that song marked a turning point for me."

"Dinner at Eight": Both of Wainwright's parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, are successful folk musicians in their own right. It made for a dynamic, turbulent childhood. Wainwright explores his Oedipal side in this "Want One" track, which he says is a "good representation" of his relationship with his father. "It starts out as this battle cry but in the end it's just about getting closer . . . enjoying the love we have."

"Poses": Wainwright was cultivating a monster methamphetamine addiction when he wrote and recorded his celebrated 2002 album Poses. Later, he would sing about the rehab process ("I Don't Know What It Is," "Go or Go Ahead"), but on the Poses title track, we catch a whiff of the material disenchantment that may have contributed to his illness: "There's never been such a grave matter / As comparing our new brand-name sunglasses / All these poses such beautiful poses."

Upcoming album: Currently compiling material for his sixth studio album, Wainwright says a dominant theme will be near-middle-age angst. "It's very much the best of times and worst of times," he hedges. "I'm very satisfied with my career, I'm in a wonderful relationship, my sister's going great . . . But when you hit 30, the mortality light starts to flicker, especially with your parents. So I can't say they're the best of times."