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Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor

on May 29, 2009, 9:35am

Patrick Wolf‘s albums tend to follow a similar pattern: Open with a soft atmospheric build of noises and strings, then either in the first or second song let an exciting rhythm pull you in. I guarantee in the first six minutes of any Patrick Wolf album, you’ll be driven to dance and/or clap, even if you’re sure he’s singing about something fairly heartbreaking. Throughout the album you’ll hear a hybrid of acoustic and digital sounds, as well as some of the loneliest piano songs of the year. With the last track he’ll send you away with the same gentle sounds he seduced you with.

And you know what? Every time you listen to it, you’ll fall in love with the formula because it’s executed so well.

Therein lies the conundrum of the Patrick Wolf experience. Do you criticize him for following the same template when the albums work so well and when the individual songs show a maturing songwriter? Ultimately, I can’t. Aside from the lack of a narrative surprise in his releases, Wolf doesn’t make many missteps in his music.

On The Bachelor, Wolf’s fourth album, he spends the course of the album exploring his solitude, wrestling with loneliness, and rallying both himself and society to emerge from a funk. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Wolf doesn’t get bogged down in vague concepts for the most part. Take “Blackdown”, which begins as an intimate piano number with Wolf narrating his walk through Sussex, reflecting on his life and a conversation with his father. The one-sided dialogue is him rationalizing his need to leave his home and find out what he stands for. He vows to himself more than to his father that, among other things, he will “Get proud of my birthright / think of the things that I must leave / When I leave behind the city and the living, finally”. After this promise to finally grow up, he lets his voice and the piano trail off until flighty strings trickle in and he whispers, “Desire, desire, desire”. Pounding marching drums cut through his whispers and transform Wolf from a timid boy into a determined man. He finally sounds convincing of his mission when he chants “Desire, desire, desire, you are not the maker of me”.

An album of sad songs about loneliness as sung by a 25 year-old probably sounds like torture. First of all, why do you want to listen to something you could hear at an open mic night? Second, what does someone this young know about the pain of life? To the latter point, Wolf has never pretended to be wiser than his years. His lyrics are earnest and at times naïve, which also responds to the first point. Wolf’s songs aren’t diary entries set to music; they’re experiments in production. His relatively young age comes through his willingness to play with the knobs in the studio, even if it means his smooth voice is twisted beyond recognition.

The title track is easily the standout number of the album, and it proves to be one of the more interesting duets released this year. The lyrics are a modified folk song about a farmer bragging about his wealth of livestock but lamenting his lack of a mate. Wolf removed allusions to gender, replacing “girl” with “someone.” What makes this decision interesting is that half of these lyrics are sung by folk artist Eliza Carthy, whose pregnancy at the time of the recording made her voice gravelly and mannish. Not only do Carthy’s gruff vocals add a sense of androgyny to the dialogue about marriage, as well as a pastoral flavor to the folk tale. Screeching strings teeter between horror soundtrack and the passion of manic troubadour.

Another notable guest on the album is actress Tilda Swinton, whose icy vocals serve as the voice of wisdom to a doubtful Wolf in the electro-pop “Oblivion”. She reappears on “Theseus” as another guiding force to the story narrative. I’m not certain she’s the same character in each appearance, but her recurring parts solidify Wolf as a lone character on a mission through the course of the tracks rather than a singer reciting 14 different songs.

The Bachelor was originally supposed to be a double album but Wolf decided to release it in two volumes, with the follow-up due next year. As interesting as two volumes of Wolf could be, I tend to think he made the right decision. The only times he falters is when he tries too hard. Don’t get me wrong: Wolf loves to produce tracks within a beat of their life. Strings, electric beeps, children’s chants, hand claps, and distorted vocals have appeared on his albums, which is only remarkable when you consider he writes mostly accessible pop tunes. Normally he can push a song to its limit without becoming self indulgent. On occasion he goes too far, and the best example on The Bachelor is “Battle”. Alec Empire, notable for his involvement in Atari Teenage Riot, supplies the beats. Although the tune won’t bust your eardrums like ATR’s tracks could, its frantic pace feels overwrought when coupled with Wolf’s cheerleading. He screams for you to battle homophobes and conservatives and rise up for your rights. A worthy cause, but from the title to the delivery, it’s too done. Think Björk ‘s “Declare Independence” without her tasty Icelandic delivery.

Wolf’s a fan of mixing genres and eras, and the album is full of cross-references, even beyond the folk songs and the classic Greek name. Wolf loves his 80’s retro, as his past releases have proven. Yet, the album’s lead single and homage to 1987 European pop, “Vulture”, is another example of needing to tone it down a bit. The swelling synths and layers of vocals are carbon copies of tracks like “Bloodbeat” and “The Childcatcher”, which we released on his 2004 debut Lycanthropy. He’s been there, done it, and moved on three albums later. Using the same retro tactics to rile us up five years later is disappointing.

Part of what makes Wolf so interesting to follow is watching him build on what works and discarding what doesn’t. Much of his debut’s charm came from his youthful passion, but what often derailed it were lyrics that were too blunt and simple. In the following albums he learned how to balance a clever metaphor with a direct line. He tried new sounds but stayed firmly planted in his hybrid of electronic and acoustic songs. That’s why any rehash of his less successful material feels like a letdown, even if the song isn’t bad and probably would’ve been a good fit for the debut.

Mildly disappointing tracks aside, we’re still left with 12 other strong songs and an album that gels as a whole. Even with a formulaic arrangement, The Bachelor succeeds because Wolf knows how to work within the template he’s created. If you’re a fan, you probably don’t mind the familiar arc. If you’re new to his work, you’re probably impressed with the result. Either way, this meditation on loneliness is a dark journey, but it’s worthwhile. And it leaves me eager to hear what he has to say in the second installment.

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