Album review: Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets by Rufus Wainwright is all over the place

Wainwright, the precocious offspring of folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, does magic by adding music to the works of William Shakespeare

Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets

Rufus Wainwright

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Three stars

Of all the superfluous creative fanfare cooked up to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Rufus Wainwright takes the Bard’s biscuit with this beguiling musical tribute.

A master of lushly confessional, orchestral pop, Wainwright – the precocious offspring of folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and big brother to fellow songsmith Martha – has also found time to dabble in opera (2009's Prima Donna), ballet and a double LP of Judy Garland covers (Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall).

So it is fair to imagine the American-Canadian songwriter approached the project of putting the works of Shakespeare to music with a certain hubris – but without a great deal of fear. Drafting in a raft of celebrity pals, the lovably barmy Take All My Loves uses a brazen mix of pop, opera, "popera" and spoken word to reimagine nine Shakespeare sonnets in 16 tracks.

So, bizarrely, we get to hear the great Welsh screen dame, Siân Phillips, reading Sonnet 43 to restless electronica blips and swirls, and find out what Captain Kirk might have sounded like had he stuck at drama school instead of joining the starship Enterprise, with actor William Shatner surreally intoning Sonnet 129.

The sense of a giddy teenager calling on the heroes from the posters on his bedroom walls is reaffirmed by Carrie Fisher – AKA's Star Wars bombshell, Princess Leia – reading Sonnet 29, unaccompanied. Yet likely the first guest-star name on the CD-sticker blurb – the cruel litmus test of any celebrity's cultural relevancy – might be that of Florence Welch, who counters with a jarringly twee baroque-folk interpretation of the same poem, which sounds like an oddly soulless computer-generated parody of Florence + the Machine's kookier moments.

However, the biggest waste of talent might be the combined forces of Helena Bonham Carter, Martha Wainwright and Fiora Cutler, who all allegedly appear backing Rufus through the stunted, sore-thumbed, goth-rock out Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23). Otherwise, Wainwright's unmistakable croon appears sparingly, notably on the plodding, string-heavy title track, one of three sonnets previously recorded on 2010's All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.

Most bizarrely, we also get to hear what Sonnets 66 and 87 sound like in German – sung and read, respectively – thanks to thespians Christopher Nell, Jürgen Holtz and Inge Keller.

As an astute reader might have deduced, All My Loves is, frankly, all over the place. But a sense of grounding comes from five straight operatic vignettes voiced by Austrian coloratura soprano Anna Prohaska. These derivative but gloriously orchestrated performances would make a fine stand-alone EP, showcasing the best of singer and composer alike.

But with the album packaged as it is, it is hard to escape the stench of backslapping celebrity indulgence.

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