Patrick Wolf

The Bachelor

Some stars were born to go their own way, and – even before his issue of shares to fund this album – there’s rarely been so obvious a case as Patrick Wolf. With misfit pop talents in suffocatingly short supply right now, it’s especially tempting to hold this one high. It’s all there on the cover of The Bachelor: a night-time forest scene in which our glam hero emerges from a space-age tent (imagine a Gareth Pugh festival collection) with only a balalaika for company. Tremendous ambition, fabulous costumes and spectacular stagecraft; a unique sound built from arcane instrumentation and contemporary electronics; and all wrapped up in a 25-year-old package ready to release his fourth (and soon fifth) album.

If there’s a hint of 80s revival with Wolf, it’s one that goes way beyond the standard-issue headband and synth riff to pick up the immense creative challenges thrown down by the heavy-hitters: Kate Bush, Associates, Prince. So far, landfill indie-fan naysayers have, you sense, bristled with a casual homophobia that thankfully no longer dares speak its name. But, what with him being equally adept with the laptop and the viola, he’s also been damned, at times, with misguided praise for his innovative tendencies. Truth is, Wolf has never been an avant gardist; Wolfmusic is more akin to Björkmusic – heartfelt, mythopeoic pop with a sonic richness more often associated with film soundtracks.

Even on lo-fi debut Lycanthropy and its under-funded follow-up Wind In The Wires, his compositional nous was obvious: judiciously wielded electronics rounded out the sound of, essentially, one man and his fiddle to impressively dramatic effect. But it was on 2007’s The Magic Position that Wolf World was fully realised. Opening with his strongest songs yet (the radio-friendly title track and the club-friendly ‘Accident and Emergency’), it took an impressive detour through a dreamworld worthy of Angela Carter – an inspiration now made explicit in the name of his own record label, Bloody Chamber. This was the kind of enchanted forest where a drug flashback, an emotional epiphany or even a lullaby-croaking Marianne Faithfull lurked around every corner.

Made with personal chaos in mind, The Bachelor takes us deeper still into the boscage. Its emotional life is denser, its ambition grander, its rock-outs harder. Strange blooms abound: ‘Oblivion’ is almost a Celtic electro ‘Boys Of Summer’; ‘Who Will’, a gorgeous industrial torch song with a softly hectic rhythms; ‘Theseus’ breathes life into the tale of the hero battling the Minotaur (never one to shy away from tall tales, Mr Wolf), its labyrinthine atmosphere created with only bodhrán and strings. Vocally, it’s a leap forward too, from the disorientating gospel of the title track to the classical chorus of voices – imagine a spiritual sung by the slaves in Fellini’s Satyricon – that mingles with the electro palpitations of ‘Count Of Casualty’. The arrangements are luxurious without being gaudy; take the arresting strings and vox in the mode of Scott Walker on ‘The Sun Is Often Out’. It’s testament to the arranger’s vision that when folk royalty Eliza Carthy or Hollywood star Tilda Swinton pass through, they seem as natural a part of the sonic scenery as any other.

Still, The Bachelor would be closer to the masterpiece we’ve been rooting for if Wolf had laid off the Celtic tinge a little to create something majestically alien (as he manages, for a stretch, on ‘Damaris’, where the blend of electronica and orchestra holds its own with Barry Adamson or Nellee Hooper’s finest moments); if he’d dropped the tin whistle shit, ‘Thickets’ could have luxuriated in its own, lovely orchestration and vocal panoply. And, in truth, the ‘hard’ songs don’t really come off: lead single ‘Vulture’ has one foot in the arena and the other in the club, ending up too stiff to dance to and too Kerr-ishly hammy to soar; ‘Battle’ is simply a mess that conjures images of a bondage-strapped Kevin Rowland bawling a school-age competition-winner’s lyrics on the theme of "bad people we don’t like" while his mates play Rock Band in the background. All Wolf needs to do to become the proper pop star he and we want him to be is drop two or three fantastic singles into his uncanny sound world; but ‘Hard Times’, the string quartet-and-synth-pop opener, is the only song on The Bachelor that snakes through your head after half a listen – the true test. Perhaps his formal training and high-cultural childhood (he didn’t hear any pop music until the age of 10) will prove to be his Achilles heel after all.

But while there’s nothing here you could bellow or boogie along to, there is a wonderfully strange and vivid musical world in which to immerse yourself – Wolf’s excelled himself at creating unique moods and textures. And in his defence, this album is intended to be the emotional blowout before the celebration of part two: The Conqueror – perhaps the pop payoff will come through next year. Here’s to the next episode.

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