Rufus Wainwright's Take All My Loves (and 10 of the best songs inspired by William Shakespeare)
Surely one of the most eclectic singer-songwriters of modern times, confounding expectations has become something of a hallmark in the long and varied career of Rufus Wainwright. Once described by Elton John as “the greatest songwriter on the planet”, Wainwright's last two albums saw him skip effortlessly from the Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game to his first full-length opera, Prima Donna, co-written in French with Bernadette Colomine and released as a soundtrack last year on classical imprint Deutsche Gramophon.
A second opera is reportedly underway and due to make its premier some time in 2018, but in the meantime Wainwright has stuck with the German label for his next project, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. Released this Friday (April 22nd) to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the famed English playwright's death, for Take All My Loves Wainwright has composed music for several of Shakespeare's poems and called in a list of collaborators to lend their voices to this reimagining of the Bard's work.
Reuniting with producer Marius De Vries, who worked on earlier Wainwright albums Want One and Want Two, Take All My Loves includes contributions from Wainwright's sister Martha, Florence Welch and opera singer Anna Prohaska, as well as actors including Peter Eyre, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher and William Shatner, all of whom perform their own unique interpretations of Shakespeare's writing.
So what does it sound like? Well, as you might expect from somebody like Rufus Wainwright, it's quite an eclectic mix – and we're understating a point there. From its opening track, a spoken word reading accompanied by some gently bubbling electronics gives way to a swooping operatic vocal from Anna Prohaska, leading into a title track that begins with gentle Indian tablas and grows into a crescendo of guttural chanting and frenetic percussion. From there the listener is taken on a journey that incorporates the unbridled rock groove of 'Unperfect Actor', the folk-tinged 'When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes', the orchestral German-language pomp of 'All dessen müd' and the operatic finale of 'Farewell'.
Compared with some of Wainwright's other work, this is more like a soundtrack or a theatre performance without the visual element, rather than just a collection of songs. It might not be to everyone's taste, but if you already have an appreciation for the work of either Shakespeare or Rufus Wainwright this is well worth a listen. Even if you have only a passing admiration for either, there's so much scope on offer here that there's bound to be something for most tastes, but if you're a huge fan of both Wainwright and the Bard then you're in for a real treat.
You can check out one of the album's tracks above, but don't be fooled into thinking that Shakespeare is only for the lofty and the worthy – Shakespeare's influence on popular music is much more widespread than you might think. Check out our pick of 10 other songs inspired by Shakspeare's work below...
'Exit Music (For a Film)' – Radiohead
Originally written for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrman's adaptation of Romeo & Juliet (although subsequently not included in the film), 'Exit Music (For a Film)' eventually showed up on Radiohead's 1997 album OK Computer, and while Thom Yorke's original plan to use Shakespeare words as lyrics was ultimately abandoned, the Radiohead frontman did take inspiration his first experience of the story: “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away. The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts.”
'Romeo had Juliette' – Lou Reed
The opening salvo from Lou Reed's 1989 solo album New York, the title is a fairly obvious reference to Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, but in Reed's hands the tale is reimagined as an love tryst between a Latino boy named Romeo Rodriguez and and American girl called Juliette Bell, all served up with a healthy dollop of New York-style sex and violence.
'Fever' – Peggy Lee
Jazz singer Peggy Lee enjoyed plenty of commercial success throughout her career, but even now her best-known song is a cover version of Little Willie John's 'Fever', a sassy swing number which featured a re-written lyric that included a reference to Shakespeare's most famous couple: “Romeo loved Juliet, and Juliet she felt the same / When he put his arms around her, he said 'Julie, baby, you're my flame'”.
'Miss MacBeth' – Elvis Costello
Taken from his 1989 album Spike, Elvis Costello's Miss Macbeth is a pretty obvious reference to 'the Scottish play', but instead of its male antagonist Costello's lyrics are aimed at Lady MacBeth, the villainous wife of the play's anti-hero who goads her husband into killing the monarch so that she may be named Queen of Scotland. Costello takes a slightly more sympathetic view of the character in his lyrics though: “Her bloodless face ran red inside / But was she really evil, was she only pantomime?”
'Don't Fear the Reaper' – Blue Oyster Cult
Not one of the most obvious references on this list, but Blue Oyster Cult's guitarist Buck Dharma has said that some of the lyrics to 'Don't Fear the Reaper', a song about the inevitability of death, were inspired by Romeo & Juliet, stating that he imagined the couple as an example of two people who knew they would be together even beyond death. These days of course it's more famous for being the subject of SNL's hilarious 'cowbell' sketch...
'Love Story' – Taylor Swift
Probably one of the biggest-selling singles to be based on a Shakespearean idea, Taylor Swift's 'Love Story', taken from Fearless, not only takes Romeo & Juliet as inspiration for its lyrical theme, but aslo for the song's video, which features Swift as the titular heroine, although here she has replaced the story's tragic ending with something a little more upbeat.
'Richard III' – Supergrass
Despite its title, 'Richard III' from Supergrass' sophomore album We're Only In It For The Money has one of the more tenuous connections to the Bard's work and reportedly comes from the band's habit of giving their songs working titles, usually pet names like 'George' or 'Miriam'. In this case the working title was simply 'Richard', but they liked to connection to the shakespeare play Richard III as the song had a menacing tone that reminded them of Richard's 'winter of discontent' speech, despite not making any direct reference to the play in the song's lyrics. It does have a killer riff though...
'Better Strangers' – Royal Blood
This cut from Royal Blood's eponymous debut album takes a famous Shakespearean insult from a conversation between Jaques and Orlando in As You Like It, repurposing it for the song's hook line: “I'm a thousand miles from danger if I make a better stranger of you.” It might be four centuries old, but it still burns.
'Cemetery Gates' – The Smiths
Morrissey has a habit of making literary references in his lyrics and in 'Cemetery Gates', as well as referencing John Keates, W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde by name, he uses a direct quote from Richard III in a discussion with a disingenuous friend about poetry: “You say: 'ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn' / And you claim these words as your own / But I've read well, and I've heard them said / A hundred times, maybe more, maybe less.”
'Desolation Row' – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has made several references to Shakespeare over the course of his long career, but we've picked 'Desolation Row' as it includes an entire verse dedicated to Ophelia from Hamlet: “Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window / For her I feel so afraid / On her twenty-second birthday / She already is an old maid / To her, death is quite romantic / She wears an iron vest / Her profession’s her religion / Her sin is her lifelessness / And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow / She spends her time peeking Into Desolation Row.”