Look beyond the formidable singing voice and healthy interest in idiosyncratic instruments and you will find a preciousness about Patrick Wolf that is potentially off-putting. Strangely, this affliction has become more overt as Wolf’s career has progressed. More recent releases have foregone the intrigue of 2005’s Wind in the Wires for a more show-boating atmosphere, one that nearly caused 2009’s The Bachelor and 2011’s Lupercalia to burst at the seams. There is something of a lagging magician about Wolf. For all the (literal) bells and whistles in his music, it sometimes feels as though all his tricks are festooning his sleeves. Even on a pithier release like his most recent EP, Brumalia, the overarching theme is one of excess.
Lupercalia did surprise in some ways, particularly in its very conspicuous grasp for mainstream success. Gone were audacious costumes and big concept releases featuring an underused Tilda Swinton. Lupercalia was all big love sounds. It even featured a music video that could have easily doubled as an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Wolf has talents aplenty, but he also really, really wants to be famous. So, also gone is the Kate Bush-inspired vocal unpredictability (Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe does a far greater job at this, anyway), the paeans to the more naturalistic side of life. Wolf’s concerns on Brumalia are less lovey-dovey than its full-length predecessor, but they are also more political. Bringing headier subjects to the table is all well and good, but an artist may want to take care to make his political statements a bit more thought-provoking.
In recent years, Wolf’s lyrics have sadly become a bit overwrought. The loose grasp on political themes displayed on The Bachelor has yet to tighten. This is a cause for pity, as Wolf’s lyrics detract from the richness of his voice. “Time of Year” nearly succeeds at being what it is on the surface: a sweet winter song featuring horns that recall The Magic Position’s jubilant “Get Lost.” On closer inspection, the heavy-handed anti-war assertions speckled throughout work wonders in tarnishing the song’s gleam. “Nemoralia”, which takes its name from a Roman festival known as the “Festival of Torches”, offers even fewer charms. Wolf strives to provide adequate commentary on last summer’s London riots, but instead produces a cluttered, clattery dirge from which emotion or insight feels largely absent.
Brumalia shares a song with Lupercalia in “Together”, one of the stronger moments on both releases. The song is spirited and relatable enough that not even platitudes such as “true love knows no sacrifice” can hamper it. The electro backing on the verses—for once—feels unobtrusive. “Jerusalem” is a gentle adaptation of the William Blake poem of the same name, while “Pelicans”, despite not being as touching, is notable for being composed on an iPad. As with all Wolf releases, there is joy to be had, but on Brumalia it is present in far smaller doses.
The title Brumalia is derived from another Roman festival, this one honoring the god Bacchus in a tribute to merriment. Taking its name after something related to a god known for excess is all too fitting here. Wolf clearly loves creating music and can be very good at it, but sacrificing a few extraneous ideas for a bit of restraint seems irreconcilable for now.
// Notes from the Road
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