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William Shakespeare - Songwriter / Paste

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William Shakespeare is best known, of course, as a playwright and a sonneteer. Less appreciated, however, is his other career as a pop songwriter. This year, on the 400th anniversary of his death, Rufus Wainwright and Paul Kelly have released new albums, Take All My Loves and Seven Sonnets & a Song respectively, that make it clear just how talented the Bard was in this sideline.

Both Wainwright and Kelly try to avoid such stumbles on their own adaptations. The former warmed up for this year's exercise by adapting three Shakespeare sonnets for his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Those unaccompanied vocal/piano performances ranged from the somewhat strained art song of "Sonnet 43" to the beguiling balladry of the homoerotic "Sonnet 20." On the latter, Wainwright's languid tenor seemed to moon despairingly and timelessly over an unattainable love. Encouraged by these first attempts, the songwriter devotes this year's Take All My Loves to nine Shakespearean sonnets in full-fledged arrangements that combine a pop band with either a symphony orchestra or a string quartet. The three earlier sonnets are included, but this time Wainwright turns them over to Austria's classical soprano Anna Prohaska. She lends sumptuous tone and precision pitch to the songs, but she sounds emotionally distant in a way that Wainwright wasn't on the originals.

This trade-off echoes a similar debate in theatrical circles: Is it more important that an actor articulate the dialogue with bell-like clarity and mathematical meter or that one capture the psychology and emotion of the character? Everyone will answer that you need both, but in the real world you have to make choices, and Wainwright often errs by deferring to classical reputations rather than trusting his own pop instincts. He has recruited such actors as William Shatner, Carrie Fisher and Helena Bonham Carter to recite the sonnets before or after they are sung by Prohaska, sister Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine and others. But the album's most persuasive moments come when Wainwright himself takes the foreground and sings the sonnets as if there were no difference between a wounded lover in Queen Elizabeth's London and one in Bill De Blasio's New York.

On both "Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)" and "Take All My Loves (Sonnet 40)," Wainwright kindles a rock ‘n' roll groove under the string quartet to lend a surging momentum to his appeals to an oblivious lover in the former and a fickle one in the latter. When he belts out, "Mine own love's strength seem to decay/O'ercharg'd with burden of mine own love's might," as if he were Peter Gabriel locking into a synth loop, the words fit the music so naturally that it almost seems that the music came first and the words later.

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