Ronson produces like someone who read a book about Motown once. His idea of soul is obtrusive horns and vibrato-laden backing vocals over simplistic R&B-lite beats and whatever keyboards would best fill out the sound while being uninteresting enough to slip by unnoticed. The interesting thing is, this studied but ultimately soulless approach works for some artists — Lily Allen’s smirk and piss-off attitude lent Ronson’s approach an air of irony, while Amy Winehouse’s vocals were so compelling that we were glad Ronson was willing to just get out of her way.
Rufus Wainwright, on the other hand, is at his most effective when he is at his most dramatic. Earlier albums found their stride with mini-epics like “The Tower of Learning” and “Go or Go Ahead”, songs that are as much Broadway as they are pop. Devoting an entire album to the work of Judy Garland is utterly bold in its self-indulgence, and it works for him.
What he doesn’t have is a constant smirk or a ridiculously great voice, and so what we get when Wainwright and Ronson end up in the same place at the same time is an album that sounds as though the artists involved are hoping you won’t notice its existence. Out of the Game is a bored, boring album that comes off as the sort of thing Wainwright feels like he has to do every so often so that people don’t accuse him of having completely lost his marbles. Only sparingly does any of it sound as though Wainwright truly cares what he’s singing about, and when he does, his desperate attempts to rise above Ronson’s soulless production sound awkward and out of place. Rather than being a slow burn with the occasional perfectly-built climax, Out of the Game is more of a midday stroll punctuated by random punches in the face.
Opening the album with the title track is always a risky proposition, in that you are taking the song that has theoretically defined the direction of the album and trying to catch the listener’s attention with it. It’s like giving away the ending in the first chapter, which is exactly what Wainwright does here: On an album full of bored, vaguely ’70s R&B-influenced pop songs, “Out of the Game” could be the deadest of them all. A simplistic beat and a slide guitar back Wainwrights age-inspired navelgazing, as he barely musters up the energy to sing a melody. The same could be said for songs like the synth-laded smooth jazz exercise that is “Barbara”, or the strange, vaguely gothic-tinged “Bitter Tears”, whose melancholy is tempered by a vocal melody repeated into oblivion.
Repetition is a common downfall throughout Out of the Game, actually. “Montauk”, which is this close to being a poignant little note to his new daughter, is marred by a jumpy, descending melody that would be nice if used sparingly, but is utterly maddening by the end of “Montauk”‘s four minutes. Similarly, “Sometimes You Need” suffers from an overabundance of “Sometimes”, which is just the sort of noncommittal word that fits just a little too well with the rest of the album.
Mitigating the boredom and repetition are a couple of tracks that actually capture the imagination. “Jericho” is a lovely, soaring bit of songcraft that finds Wainwright sounding utterly comfortable gracefully careening between highs and lows in an utterly Elton John sort of song. There’s also “Candles”, the sublime album closer dedicated to his late mother, perhaps understandably the one song on which Wainwright actually sounds utterly sincere. The way it manages to build, simultaneously triumphant and mournful, is exquisite. It’s a testament not only to his mother, but to everything the rest of the album is missing.
Wainwright has always had in him the propensity to be blasé; take a look at “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, which opened Poses, and you see a precious little midtempo track that almost feels like the first thing that came to his head that day. Any song that features a line like “And then there’s those other things” isn’t trying all that hard. Still, whether it was the instrumentation, or the affect, or the smirk, Wainwright lent charm to the mundane. That charm is gone on Out of the Game, and Mark Ronson can only take so much of the blame. It is forgotten immediately as it finishes. It’s so ephemeral it barely exists.
A better scenario might have been that it didn’t exist at all.