Patrick Wolf is the sort of artist who elicits both pity and frustration. Since the early 2000s, he has been toiling away at consistently strange folk and electro-tinted pop music and has appeared on a number of stages in outlandish costumes. Florence and the Machine, also a purveyor of strange folk-inflected songs, became the much bigger star and much more quickly. Wolf has yet to even reach the indie recognition of a flamboyantly unpredictable group like Of Montreal. For someone as talented as Wolf, this must be frustrating. Yet, Wolf’s diva inclinations (such as throwing temper tantrums on stage and threatening to quit music because some of his fans said mean things about him online, oh the nerve!), as well as his grandiose and overly precious leanings, is a good reminder as to why he has yet to break through. Lupercalia, his fifth and most accessible release to date may serve as that breakthrough. A love album dedicated to Wolf’s soon-to-be husband William, it is full of perfect sun-drenched hooks. Yet it also feels oddly soulless, as if in sacrificing some of his weirdness, Wolf sacrificed his emotional heft as well.
Lupercalia begins with the one two punch of “The City” and “House”, two of the album’s singles and strongest songs. “The City” keeps with the current trend of employing a saxophone for no other reason as they are cool right now; in doing so, Wolf makes clear just how un-weird and commercial this release will be. “House”, strangely enough, sounds vaguely similar to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”. Once that shock passes, the song comes across enjoyably enough and serves as one of the few times one the album where Wolf’s lyrics abstain from getting overly cute. All the praises Wolf bestows upon his lover, such as the Dylan Thomas quality in his face, are specific and honest. If overly cute is more your thing, then the next track, “Bermondsey Street”, delivers. A song about the boundlessness of love, it risks being skipped over due to some borderline preachy lines about all the things romance is defiant in the face of, but its horn hook creates a nice diversion from the lyrical stumbles.
“Armistice” marks Lupercalia‘s peak, a lullaby featuring a cristal baschet (an instrument composed of vibrating glass rods) and lovely backing vocals by Wolf’s sister, Jo. It may be the closest the album comes to vintage Wolf, but still employs enough temperance to keep it consistent with the rest of the album. After “Armistice”, songs engage briefly, but quietly disappear into the ether once their time has passed. “Time of My Life”, Lupercalia‘s first and weakest single, pulses quickly then dies. The heart of “Together” beats a little longer, and is again buoyed by Wolf’s sister’s contributions, but the wait for it feels like a slog. Even the customary less than a minute segue track (in this case, “William”), feels like a throwaway, especially when one compares it to the weird darkness of Wind in the Wires’ “The Shadowsea”.
If Patrick Wolf were PJ Harvey, this would be his Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but even for all that album’s exploration of love’s every facet, it never punched you in the face with the highs so unrelentingly as Lupercalia does. For all its sheen, Stories from the City… still had a very human heart. Wolf is capable of displaying such heart, yet in Lupercalia it feels stifled beneath the platitudes of love. In the end Lupercalia feels like a summer fling, and why settle for that when you can have something perennial?