An exquisitely refined and somber collection of contrasts
Initially, Patrick Wolf’s latest release, Sundark and Riverlight, is a bit of an acquired taste. Truthfully, his heavily-accented, operatic voice and sparse chamber pop production takes a little while to get used to. However, once listeners are prepared to enter his world, they’ll discover a unique artist who can express intense sentiments and universal regret with exceptional fragility and pristine arrangements. This is one classy, beautiful, and haunting collection of songs.
A double album consisting of re-recorded tracks and unheard material, Sundark and Riverlight should be seen as a retrospective on the first 10 years of Wolf’s career. He’s described the record as “totally, totally, totally stripped down. It’s time for me to be retrospective about the last 10 years before I move onto the next 10. I’m 28 and I think it’s quite fun to sing the songs you wrote as a teenager.” It’s surprising enough that someone in his late 20s could craft something so personal, mature, refined, tasteful, and individualized, but the fact that he wrote some of this material a decade ago is truly impressive. Overall, Sundark and Riverlight is quite enveloping.
Considering that Wolf sees the release as two mini albums housed together, it’s appropriate to discuss it as such. Sundark opens with “Wind In The Wires”, a delicate and finely tuned reflection. Mournful strings complement plucked strings while Wolf laments a tragic tale. The way the strings alternate to match his intensity is masterful, as is the way he allows the space around his words to speak volumes. Of course, these techniques are used equally well throughout the record. Elsewhere, “Libertine” is quicker and more involving. Its percussion, coupled with the forceful violins and Wolf’s impassioned melody, is quite alarming, while “Hard Times” is sultry yet poignant. Its subtle use of acoustic guitar is commendable, too. “Overture” is perfectly elegant and emotional, and each timbre is exquisite.
As for Riverlight, it has its share of gems, too. “Together” begins with lovely acoustic guitar work as Wolf sings seductively about cities and love. Eventually, strings are added to build the majesty and heighten the sense of romantic nostalgia. “The Magic Position”, with its hopeful melody and equally bright arrangement, is the most engaging and uplifting song here. It’ll almost certainly put a smile on your face. “Bluebells” excels because of the way its piano and accordion contributions give it a precisely European feel; like most of the record, it would fit wonderfully in a classic French or Italian romantic film. “Teignmouth” is among the most powerful pieces vocally, while “House” features colorful woodwinds that help it sound out.
Sundark and Riverlight is an enchanting and heartfelt experience from beginning to end. Although the approach to production and timbre can be a bit tedious and repetitive, this consistency definitely helps give the record more conceptual weight. Wolf is clearly a dedicated, singular artist who possesses the confidence and tools to express his feelings with regal poise and grace. It’ll be interesting to hear what he comes up with in the next phase of his career.