Song of the Day #973: ‘Dinner at Eight’ – Rufus Wainwright

I’ve described so many of these albums as ‘Desert Island Discs’ already that I fear I might have already reached my limit. If that’s the case, I’d have to kick something out the make room for Rufus Wainwright’s 2003 album Want One.

This is a record I’ve described as my favorite ever, though I’ve also bestowed that title on Paul Simon’s Graceland and Ben Folds Five’s debut album. At any rate, it’s in the running, definite top five material.

(As an aside, I won’t be featuring the Ben Folds Five debut during this series because I explored it in full late last year, dedicating a day to each of its 12 tracks. But rest assured, it belongs on any list of my favorite albums and it is represented here in spirit).

In film, I’ve long made a distinction between simple masterpieces and complex masterpieces. An example of the former is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, a movie about no more or less than two people walking around Vienna talking to each other. It is gorgeous and profound but never elaborate.

An example of the latter would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, no less devastating a romance but complicated by the addition of a science fiction plot, the intersection of memory with reality, seamless special effects and mind games galore. Part of what makes it exceptional is the fact that it holds together so well despite all those moving parts.

Wainwright’s Want One is a complex masterpiece. Its 14 tracks run the gamut from simple piano ballads to fully orchestrated pop-rock songs. The songs feature banjos, children’s choirs, references to opera and Britney Spears. It’s as if Wainwright entered the studio bursting at the seams with romance and creative energy, pressed the record button and then exploded.

I love every baroque, indulgent moment of this album, and all the insecure quiet ones too. He’s never topped it, though he tries every time he’s up to bat. Rufus always swings for the fences.

Today’s song is the album closer. It was written for his father, Loudon Wainwright, with whom he has had a strained relationship for years.

No matter how strong
I’m gonna take you down
With one little stone
I’m gonna break you down
And see what you’re worth
What you’re really worth to me

Dinner at eight was okay
Before the toast full of blames
It was great until those old magazines
Got us started up again
Actually it was probably me, again

Why is it so
That I’ve always been the one who must go
That I’ve always been the one told to flee
When in fact you were the one, long ago
Actually in the drifting white snow
Who left me

So put up your fists and I’ll put up mine
No running away from the scene of the crime
God’s chosen a place
Somewhere near the end of the world
Somewhere near the end of our lives

But ’til then no, Daddy, don’t be surprised
If I wanna see the tears in your eyes
Then I know it had to be long ago
Actually in the drifting white snow
You loved me

No matter how strong
I’m gonna take you down
With one little stone
I’m gonna break you down
And see what you’re worth
What you’re really worth to me

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #973: ‘Dinner at Eight’ – Rufus Wainwright

  1. Dana says:

    I am actually a bit more familiar with Poses, featuring the wonderful “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” than I am with this album. But given your high praise, I will have to revisit this one.

    I still generally find Rufus’ voice off putting for heavy consumption (much as you do with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young), but there is no denying his songwriting talent.

  2. pegclifton says:

    Very touching lyrics.

  3. Amy says:

    Listening to this song today, I had a striking revelation. Had I “discovered” this artist, this song, when I was in college, I probably would have fallen instantly in love.

    Somehow we had so much more time to listen, to explore, to wallow, in those days. I have no time to wallow now; it’s too indulgent. So, of course, I can’t respond to someone as indulgent and ‘wallowy” as Rufus Wainwright.

    Still, I think I “get” him for the first time ever this morning.

  4. Clay says:

    That fits with my similar statement about The Smiths… I discovered them at a perfect “wallow” time in my life and they remain important to me to this day.

    As for Wainwright, I discovered him more recently. But I’m a big fan of wallowing to this day, in music if not in life.

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