Generally, as musicians’ careers get into the 10-plus year range, the contemplative, retrospective instinct tends to emerge. Whether that emerges in the form of exalting the past in greatest hits collections or denying it by evolving in a completely new direction, it’s hard not to look at late-career releases as a linear reaction away from the past. There’s also a select group who literally re-inspect their own tunes, creating direct sequels or re-imagining their own tracks from the bottom up. With Sundark and Riverlight, Patrick Wolf adds his name to that list, re-recording 20 essential cuts from his catalog after stripping them down to acoustic arrangements.
Wolf would seem to be getting a particularly early start to this part of his career at the ripe old age of 28, but longtime fans would be quick to note that his debut LP, Lycanthropy, came out in 2003. They’d also remind you that four seriously wide-scoped albums have followed it, each full of that glammy, dramatic flair that only comes with precisely the sort of confidence that it would take to re-envision your own material before you’ve turned 30. The quick-twitch revisionism just seems right for Wolf, an angsty bravado thrumming through his persona, perpetuating the constant contention to outdo himself and everyone else.
Riverdark and Sunlight pushes that healthy ego front and center. While Wolf’s operatic voice and dramatic lyrics never strayed too far from the spotlight, but ditching the ramshackle electronics and percussion and boosting the importance of lush strings and acoustic guitar, the other sonic components on the album exclusively support his croon. Rather than other players in the scene, the piano and finger-picked Spanish guitar provide a stage for his majestic vocals. It’d be silly to complain about highlighting a voice as strong as this, but repeated in near-identical bare surroundings, one starts to consider it.
The two-disc set is split down the middle, Sundark representing the darker emotional spheres, and Riverlight hitting on the more hopeful moments. Considering the fact that the instrumentation rarely changes, though, this differentiation is rarely as prominent as the disc separation would suggest. Sure, the difference in major and minor keys are immediately noticeable, but the violin caterwauling on “The Libertine” isn’t all that mopey, and the talk of being “lost at sea” over harp plucking on “Teignmouth” ain’t chipper. The gritty crunch of electronics on the original recording of the former pursued a claustrophobia and angst that this version can’t come near, and the swelling hope of the latter’s Wind in the Wires originality floats away in this orchestral setting. The two instead find a homogenized middle where Wolf’s pitch-perfect vocals still dazzle, but lack the depth that he’s proven he can compose.
The synth-pop electricity of “Together” meanders in flamenco-guitar tinged cabaret tones, the swagger replaced with showtune-y grandiosity. Wolf’s still able to emote with the best, but the changes that this Riverlight take undergoes don’t leave the listener anywhere near the feeling that it’s original Lupercalia recording had in spades. This track uses the same string arrangements, merely subtracting the off-kilter electronic thrum that differentiated “Together” from the pack of huge pop tunes. Similarly, the stunningly biting original recording of “Paris” loses every ounce of its venom, like some alternate universe Broadway cast recording of Wolf’s Lycanthropy electro-crashing gem.
As expected, though, the tracks best suited to this heavily emotive re-imagining are the ones that came closest to working in this milieu in the first place. The tea-steeping orchestral sway of “London” doesn’t lose much by de-electrifying the bass, and the piano-driven charm of “Bermondsey Street” subbing in snaps for a skipping electronic beat takes it into entirely agreeable Jens Lekman territory. Turning darkwave raver “Vulture” into a piano piece is a similarly inspired choice, the ominous low end retaining the depths of the original.
A good deal of the songs on Sundark and Riverlight gain little from these revised arrangements, even losing some of Wolf’s patented eccentricities. If this acoustic world is Wolf’s next step, he’d have been much better off working towards producing new material in it. Instead, he’s re-released a handful of already beloved songs in a version that rarely match their initial power.
Essential Tracks: “London”, “Bermondsey Street”