Song 48: Rufus Wainwright, “Millbrook” (1998)

Rufus Wainwright - 1998 Rufus Wainwright

Is there anything better than Rufus Wainwright’s voice? It’s a little thin and vulnerable, but it also sounds like it could power a locomotive and kick your ass. That goes double for Wainwright’s songs, which sound delicate until he busts out lyrics like “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue” or “whiffs of freon and my new grandma, Bea Arthur.”

There are more surprising songs on Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled debut, but “Millbrook” is the one that’s always stuck in my head. It sneaks up on you, that seemingly uncatchy melody, as do the lyrics about prep school kids. Did he just sing “wearing new hats, shootin’ the shit” in an operatic voice? Yes, yes he did. The fact that this is one of twelve eyebrow-raising songs on a first album, at age 25 … Well, it’s depressing, is what it is. Man. And why he sings “the next very day” instead of “the very next day,” we may never know. But he completely sells it.

I had no idea that Millbrook was an actual educational institution, one that Wainwright attended. (You can hear him talk about the experience in this promotional video, which doubles as a little “Millbrook” music video at the end.) I think he totally nails how wonderful and terrible adolescents are. He doesn’t even address that directly, he just says they shoot the shit, get away with murder, and have periodic breakdowns. But both attributes somehow come across.

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