Music Reviews

Patrick Wolf Lupercalia

(Hideout) Rating - 6/10

For the past few years, Patrick Wolf has been looking like something of a spent force creatively. Although still gifted with an ear for a catchy hook, the stunningly/sickeningly (delete as applicable) precocious artist behind Lycanthropy and Wind in the Wires was now reduced to peddling insincere romance on The Magic Position, or, in the case of The Bachelor, burying any genuine emotion in overblown gestures (and in case the record wasn't already pretentious enough it was planned as the first part of a diptych of concept albums). So, the pre-release hype for Wolf's latest across the net, in particular from the more pop-leaning critics, was something of a surprise.

Whatever it may be, Lupercalia certainly isn't the album that Wolf originally planned. When The Bachelor went from being a double album to a interconnected pair of single albums, the release date for part two, now entitled The Conqueror, was firmly set for 2010. But nothing arrived that year, at least not until November when Wolf released a brief announcement explaining that he had scrapped the album and Lupercalia would be its replacement. Although perhaps scrapped is putting a bit strongly as several remnants pop up on Lupercalia – the neo-renaissance ballad William is so similar to The Bachelor's title track that it's a likely hold-over from those sessions and Time of My Life and Together definitely were, having been previewed back when the albums were still intended to be a single release, besides it doesn't look like Wolf believes in throwing away material as The Days has been doing the rounds since 2007 (sadly over the four years its taken to make it onto record it's not gotten any less forgettable).

The reason for Wolf's volte-face on The Conqueror should become clear within the first few bars of Lupercalia. Whereas before he saw himself as a defiant young misfit, culminating in The Bachelor's statement of independence (in more ways than one as it was released on Wolf's own label, which is something else he gave up when he ditched the album as Lupercalia is being released on a Mercury subsidiary), since then he's fallen madly in love and gotten engaged and he wants the world to know all about it. So, he's placed The City, a song so goofily loved up that you just have to take your hat off to him really, as Lupercalia's opening salvo. It's hard to work out what the most ridiculous thing about the track is – could it be the 'top of the morning' lyrical hook, the shameless sax solo, the 1980's Sunkist commercial music video, or the fact that its middle eight sounds just like Annie Lennox's Walking on Broken Glass? It doesn't really matter though as the song's so joyful, largely down to its fabulous horn arrangement, that it just about manages to circumvent cynicism.

In fact Lupercalia sees Wolf attempting to dazzle the listener with his musical ability at every turn. While 'big' is the operative word for the album's production, unlike The Bachelor it never feels over-done, instead managing to seem light and spritely while providing every song with some delightful quirk or detail to pick up on, at the very least. To single out a few highlights, the arrangement of The Future's duetting vocals, House and The Falcon's genuinely intelligent use of a string section, and the samples and reappearance of the horns in Bermondsey Street particularly impress.

But the music is, unfortunately, only half the story. Bermondsey Street's lovely instrumentation gets trampled over by its artlessly blunt lyrics (however noble a sentiment the song may have) and elsewhere they don't get much better – if they aren't clumsy, they come off as smug or insincere and almost constantly self-obsessed. While it's true that Wolf is no longer writing entirely about himself, he's only really broadened his scope to include his fiancé – to return to The City, the repeated line 'Won't let this city destroy our love' suggests that, despite letting somebody into his life, Wolf's still hanging onto his 'me against the world' attitude, and he hasn't really grown-up much at all.

The sense of smugness comes not so much from every track's obsession with the brilliance of his newfound love, but from the details he chooses to express it with. For one there's the globe-trotting lyrics that flit from one country to the next in the space of a line or two – while Wind in the Wires used travel to convincingly evoke both landscapes and Wolf's thoughts, here it just sounds like somebody casually dropping the places he went on his gap year into a conversation. More problematic, however, are Wolf's stabs at squalor and melancholy. He's always come off as possessing an incredible amount of self belief (of course this may well be a pre-requisite for any aspiring pop star), but the likes of William, The Days, and Slow Motion are delivered with such confidence that it all starts to feel a bit musical theatre – with the ugly details merely worn as fauxhemian trappings to bestow the proceedings with some sort of unearned drama.

Time of My Life (one of the aforementioned Conqueror hold-overs) however, is something of an exception, not only does it drop a tale of out-and-out heartbreak into all the romance, but it also sees Wolf put his self-confidence to good use, as instead of attempting to wallow in despair he unleashes his inner-diva and essentially rewrites I will Survive for men. It may be the best thing he's ever recorded (and it's also nicely complemented, musically, by the Giorgio Moroder stylings of Together).

With the lupine album titles, it may well be the case that Wolf intends Lupercalia to be the end of the story he started with Lycanthropy, covering his life from the (self-styled) urchin on his first album cover to becoming the big bright shining star that he always dreamed of being. And if this is the case, Lupercalia, despite its flaws, does provide a satisfying sense of closure. Now, hopefully, Patrick Wolf will be able to graduate onto subjects other than himself (and an attempt to do a full-on disco record would not go amiss either).