- Mon, 2011-06-20 15:14
There have always been two sides to Patrick Wolf’s musical personality. On the one hand there is his keen ear for an attention-grabbing, crowd-pleasing melody, and on the other his tendency towards eccentric and often peculiar soundscapes. His four albums to date have been crammed full of the former, but more often than not they have been buried within the latter. It is a characteristic that has won him many an avid follower, but has also seen him labelled as something of a ‘nearly-man’, perennially on the verge of transcending the cult status that he has acquired, but never quite doing so.
His new album, Lupercalia, may well be the turning point, not because Wolf has ditched the weirdness, but because he has allowed it to embellish rather than counteract his strong melodic instincts. A brief look at the list of contributing instruments is enough to gather that Wolf is still traversing far from conventional waters; as well as harps, saxophones and timpani he also employs an ondes Martenot, Cristal Baschet, duduk and Appalachian dulcimer. From time to time these outlandish ornamentations add up to create overtly odd moments. The fifty seconds of William, for example, act as a strange and atypical midway point in the album, albeit one that, on balance, works. The jarring Slow Motion, meanwhile, catches one completely off guard; for the majority of its runtime it is a slightly mawkish, sedately-paced, piano-and-strings ballad of the sort that might be found on a Disney soundtrack, but every now and then there is an inexplicable eruption of Arabian vocals that transform it from sickly-sweet to absurd.
For the majority of the album, however, Wolf perfectly balances the idiosyncratic with the accessible. The City and Bermondsey Street are perky new romantic pop songs, the former sporting slick saxophone solos, the latter a trilling harp and electronic clicks and whirs, and both festooned with dancing string sections, joyous handclaps and huge primary-colour chords. Armistice is a reworking of an old Manx folk song that drifts into view with a chorus of ghostly sounds before slowly enveloping you with a mournful grace, and the pulsing synth-bass and falsetto backing vocal of the dramatic Together is the sort of updated Pet Shop Boys hit that Hurts would give an arm and leg to have written. The highlight of the album, however, is the brilliant Time Of My Life, a glorious combination of cinematic strings, rumbling drums and a masterfully constructed break-down that bursts back into the album’s most compelling chorus.
Fans of Patrick Wolf’s darker, more tangled material may baulk at Lupercalia. Though by no means laughs and smiles throughout, it is a far more positive album than its predecessors have tended to be, and even in its more doleful moments the melodies exhibit a sprightly confidence that in the past they may not always have displayed. Still unmistakably Patrick Wolf, it seems that this time around his pop sensibilities and his eccentricities are working in harmony rather than pulling in different directions, and all the better for it.