The folk tradition looms large over the work of Rufus Wainright. Approaching the craft as a white gay Canadian man for whom the canon of his own folkie dad was there to be overcome, Wainwright lavishes the cover material he recorded for Folkocracy with the appetite of a weary traveler sniffing a bounteous feast. This is an artist who set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and belted “Over the Rainbow” at Carnegie Hall: He ain’t afraid of shit. Like his stylistic and artistic compass Bryan Ferry, Wainwright can inhabit the cobwebby artifact “Oh Shenandoah”: He’s a habitual tourist with an appetite, growling in a foreign country’s terrain.

And, I must point out, he has never sung better on record, wresting control from a vibrato too often besotted with its own purring, like a cat stroking itself. Even on his self-titled 1998 debut, an album that elbowed me into coming out a few weeks after my first listen, his dolorous way with a syllable occasionally smothered its chansons. He had more fun on 2001’s sprightlier Poses, one of the period’s few documents about a gay urban life where too many cigarettes, cocktails, and muzzy mornings don’t quash his insistence on more cigs, cocktails, and mornings, or on improving the songcraft that particularized his experiences.

Toughened by decades’ worth of incident in Wainwright’s life—from vices to kids—Folkocracy queers these ancient prayers and subterranean croaks without Wainwright or the band, assembled by co-producer Mitchell Froom, fussing them into inertness. Folkocracy is a fun listen. Froom, known for treating keyboards like bazookas, keeps things spare, not parched: He knows his client requested condo-sized voices like ANOHNIChaka Khan, and Brandi Carlile. For once the advance PR is correct: the album sounds like a party to which the birthday boy invited his favorite people. For precedents consider Neil Young’s Americana, where he plugged the likes of “Oh Susannah” into the blown, bleary amps of Crazy Horse.

These projects are worthless if they don’t surprise, so, happily, Folkocracy offers several. Andrew Bird plays a violin line as old as Tennessee mud and harmonizes with Chris Stills on “Harvest,” the best Young cover since Lee Ann Womack’s poised “Out on the Weekend” almost a decade ago. The Chaka Khan who impressed with versions of  “All of Me” and other standards long ago contributes a vocal to “Cotton Eyed Joe,” whose finger-brushed delicacy suggests the lyrics remain a mystery she longs to solve. John Legend has never sung with less ham-on-rye than on “Heading for Home.” A performer who sounds least human when conventionally crooning, David Byrne invests Moondog’s “High on a Rocky Ledge” with a tremulous intensity; I imagine him pledging his troth to his lover instead of shoving her off the cliff.

The above-the-title star holds up his end. For his next project he should write original kid songs like “Hush Little Baby,” joined here by siblings Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche on the mic. As if inspired by the gently fierce Hawaiian protest rhetoric of “Kaulana Nā Pua,” he includes his own lamentation. The highest compliment to offer “Going to a Town” is that it belongs in this company. Val McCullum strums basic guitar chords over which Wainwright and ANOHNI mourn the promises their fellow citizens persist in breaking. “I’m so tired of you, America,” Wainwright sighs, but in a sigh inflected with the expectation that he’ll hope again—just like the rest of us will break the promise again.

The concentration and breath control he demonstrates on “Going to a Town” are triumphs. It’s not like he couldn’t ever sing: he’s got “I Don’t Know What It Is” and “Foolish Love” in his catalog. But a newly jazzed Wainwright has learned from the company he keeps. Folkocracy is as generous as a utopia.

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Rufus Wainwright: Folkocracy