Rufus Wainwright has carved out a peripatetic career path that often takes him far beyond traditional singer-songwriter territory, and his talents are such that he handles everything he undertakes adeptly. On “Dinner At Eight,” he delivered the kind of towering ballad that all artists crave, even if it took unearthing some ugly family history to do it.
Wainwright’s wonderful 2003 album Want One contained a seemingly endless supply of lushly melodic, wryly insightful pop songs. “Dinner At Eight” sits at the end like a silent killer, creeping up to break your heart. The song, as Wainwright explained to The Guardian in 2005, is, in part, a blow-by-blow report of a confrontation he had with his father, Loudon Wainwright III, a formidable performer in his own right.
“We had just done a shoot for Rolling Stone together, and I told him he must be really happy that I got him back in that magazine after all these years,” Wainwright recalled. “That sort of kicked things off. Later in the evening he threatened to kill me. So I went home and wrote ‘Dinner At Eight’ as a vindictive retort to his threat.”
The vindictiveness emerges in the song’s opening lines, as Rufus portrays himself as a feisty David to his father’s Goliath: “No matter how strong/I’m gonna take you down with one little stone.” Yet any prickly emotions that the lyrics put forth are softened by the music, full of classically-tinged piano chords and tender strings. Wainwright then references the fateful fight, as a seemingly benign meal ignites, with “those old magazines” serving as the tinder.
Although the narrator admits fault in the most recent altercation (“It was probably me again”), he claims that the fissure between the two actually stems from the father’s initial departure, which the son recalls with cinematic clarity: “In the drifting white snow/You left me.” In the bridge, Wainwright’s vocals escalate to match the intensifying of the music as he implores his antagonist to settle their dispute once and for all: “So put up your fists/And I’ll put up mine/No more running away/From the scene of the crime.”
Wainwright suggests that a reconciliation might come “somewhere near the end of the world/ Somewhere near the end of our lives,” but, barring that, he needs to see his father’s tears. Only that and that alone can put a different spin on the childhood scene that haunts him still; when he repeats the refrain, Wainwright squints through the snow and can see that “You loved me.” But that moment of grace is interrupted by a repeat of that harsh opening verse, which makes it seem that there will be no turning of the cheeks in this relationship anytime soon.
The wounds engendered from a fractious father-son relationship often run deep. On his beautiful but devastating ballad “Dinner At Eight,” Rufus Wainwright suggests that maybe the only way to truly set about healing those wounds is to pick at the scab.