As any fan, casual listener, or critic of Patrick Wolf could tell you, the chamber-pop star loves three things: grandiosity, folklore, and wolves. The singer-songwriter’s lauded 2003 debut, Lycanthropy, was a clever, timely convergence of hallowed British folk and classical traditions and the sort of electronic overtones that had just begun to infiltrate indie music, and he’s spent the past near-decade expanding on those three things. The last we heard from him, 2009’s The Bachelor, Wolf’s music had grown more accessible than ever (as on its first single, the huge Baroque pop anthem “Hard Times”) and dimmed to near post-punk levels of melancholy, while working his self-actualized mythology deep into the album’s framework more successfully than ever before, even enlisting Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton to lend her voice to a handful of tracks and interludes. The Bachelor was initially envisioned as the first of a two-album series called Battles, with the second part — originally entitled the Conquerer, now Lupercalia — due out some time last year. Intended as a counterpoint to The Bachelor‘s uncharacteristic gloom, it finds the 27-year-old balladeer evidently deep in love and back to his cheery, exuberant ways, pounding away at his piano/synth/violin theatrically, while again extolling the virtues of being in love. Your feelings about this relapse into old habits will likely weigh heavily into your opinion on the album.
Two albums ago, on his third record the Magic Position, Patrick Wolf delved for the first time into romanticism, most notably in the saccharine waltz of “Enchanted”. Where his first couple of albums touched on considerably darker lyrical material (see: the aptly titled macabre of Lycanthropy‘s ”the Childcatcher”), the LP dug deep into what one can only assume was a rather bright time in the singer-songwriter’s life. Even the album’s dimmer points, the doleful Marianne Faithfull duet “Magpie” for instance, were flecked at the corners with lively string sections or cheery ukelele strums. In a similar manner, Lupercalia indulges Wolf’s romantic side, though this time he seems more comfortable with a wider variety of styles, such as the lush waltz that leads “House” along and the half-disco lope of lead single “the City” (which comes complete with a sleazy sax solo).
Wolf’s strongest point, which doubles curiously as the biggest chink in his armor, is his earnestness. His career’s been marked from its very start with a certain immediacy and urgency to get every thought, emotion and feeling out in the open, both musically and lyrically. While that allows for a genuine, analogous bond with listeners and fans when he manages to emote successfully (as on the album’s marvelous “Together”, on which Wolf’s adoring croon and steady disco-beat make for one of his finest tracks yet), his odd inclination to try to share everything, while often not saying much beyond the usual sentimental cliché makes it terribly difficult to take him seriously when he stumbles (on the cringe-worthy “Slow Motion” which — for reasons completely inexplicable — includes some very unseemly primal hoots and hollers, all while Wolf attempts to croon about the kiss of life). Mercifully, Wolf and his music manage to fall somewhere in between marvelous and cringe-worthy for most of Lupercalia, more often than not managing to communicate the album’s warm, passionate theme in his signature, winning charm.
In an interview a couple of months ago, Wolf claimed that he “wanted nothing on [Lupercalia] to feel artificial at all”, attested that he hardly “felt like [he] belonged in pop music.” While he succeeds fairly well at ensuring that Lupercalia spends its every minute displaying his emotions on its sleeve, it’s fairly safe to say that this record won’t exactly storm the charts. Indeed, perhaps the only thing here more pretentious than the verbose lyrics and over-ornate music is the album’s wordy title and its ostentatious cover star. All the same, if you can bear the stuffiness — either as a longtime fan or just because you like this sort of thing to begin with — you’re in for a treat and one of the sweetest records you’ll hear all year.