Over the course of three albums, Patrick Wolf has earned himself a reputation as a first-rate shape shifter. Starting out as a brooding, electro-folk provocateur, he soon came to embrace the lush sounds of chamber-pop, making a name for himself as a bedroom composer with a wide dramatic streak. On 2007’s The Magic Position, he finally shed the last recognizable vestiges of his morose persona, producing an album of dizzyingly cheerful electro-pop that was as refreshing as it was novel. Two years later, Wolf has returned with The Bachelor, an album that, on the surface, appears to represent a synthesis of his previous musical personas. Incorporating elements of chamber-pop, industrial music, electro and indie-rock and drawing from an equally varied emotional and thematic palette, The Bachelor should feel like a summation of Wolf’s career up to this point. Unfortunately, in attempting to split the difference between joyously triumphant and ominously dark, Wolf has failed to do justice to either, producing an album that often feels more contrived than sincere.
Originally envisioned as a double-album entitled Battle, Wolf’s latest opus is now set to arrive as two discrete releases: The Bachelor and The Conqueror. After a spat with his former label, Universal Records, Wolf decided to go it alone, funding the recording of his album via Bandstocks (a site that allows fans to purchase “shares” in artists in exchange for access to scarce goods) and releasing the record on his own Bloody Chamber Music imprint in the UK. While all this tumult feels rather appropriate for a project originally named Battle, it’s worth noting that this title technically refers to the East Sussex town where the album was recorded.
Regardless, The Bachelor, the first half of Battle to see commercial release, still feels like an album borne of conflict. Epic and theatrical even by Wolf’s standards, The Bachelor finds the young songwriter at his most bombastic, employing big melodies, over-the-top production and grand pronouncements at nearly every turn.
Take opening number and single “Hard Times” as an example. Pairing steadily strummed guitars with a robust string arrangement and sliced up bits of radio static, the song finds Wolf pledging, “Through these hard times / We’ll work harder / Harder.” While it’s unclear whether he’s referring to global economic dread or to more personal trials, Wolf sounds more earnest and mature here than he often has in the past. That is, however, until the ill-advised, pop-punk chorus hits, wherein he croons, “Show me some / Revolution” like an angst-fueled mall punk. It’s a cringe-worthy moment and unfortunately, an early portent of things to come. Though The Bachelor draws heavily from the sound of Wolf’s previous three albums, it is exceptional in that its positive qualities largely fail to outweigh its author’s poor judgment and lack of restraint.
Still, there are flashes of brilliance to be found here as well. “Oblivion” marries one of Wolf’s trademark weeping violin lines with a stuttering, start-and-stop beat, though the song’s titular rallying cry, “I do not fear / Oblivion”, feels a bit childish to be coming out of a 25-year-old’s mouth. The Celtic folk arrangement of “Thickets”, meanwhile, suits Wolf’s romantic musings surprisingly well, though Tilda Swinson’s “Voice of Hope” (featured on three songs on The Bachelor) is, admittedly, a bit much. The buzzing, chiptune-esque synths and glitchy beat on “Count of Casualty” recall Wolf’s best electro-pop work on Lycanthropy, though the electronics don’t feature nearly prominently enough in the mix. And “Theseus”, a blissful ode to a lover’s appetite, stands as one of Wolf’s more accomplished and adventurous arrangements, with its tasteful mix of strings (Bishi-indebted sitar, mandolin, cello and violin) and orchestral sweep.
Still, for every partially successful track on The Bachelor, there’s at least one unequivocal gaffe. Title track “The Bachelor” reaches for Cornish folk authenticity, even going so far as to enlist the help of raspy guest vocalist Eliza Carthy, though the angsty refrain, “I will never marry / Marry at all” feels at odds with the song’s rootsy overtones and barnyard imagery. “Who Will” mistakes hackneyed for grandiose, building toward a chorus of voices that falls halfway between Bright Eyes album closer and Mickey Mouse Club sing-along. Neither of these tracks, however, is a match for “Battle”, the album’s—and quite possibly Wolf’s—most egregious misstep. Starting out as a cheesy speed metal number and eventually giving way to verses buoyed by tough-guy crew parts and an indefensible emo-pop chorus, “Battle” isn’t just bad—it’s downright embarrassing. Especially coming from a songwriter as talented as Wolf.
Of all the songs on The Bachelor, lead single “Vulture” is easily the most successful overall. A slice of buzzing, slinky electro, the track oozes with ‘80s new wave excess, voyeuristic glee and self-destructive hedonism. That it documents Wolf’s much-publicized, week long romp with Los Angeles Satanists only adds to the song’s appeal. On “Vulture”, Wolf is dark but not morose—he’s an enthusiastic observer and participant, a confident owner of his own sexuality and darkest desires. This persona is a good fit for Wolf’s flamboyant delivery and one can’t help but wonder what The Bachelor might have sounded like had he more fully developed and embodied the “Vulture” character.
Looking back at his last three LPs, it’s clear that Patrick Wolf has always toed the line between adolescent angst and mature reflection. And while this has meant occasionally giving the self-indulgent prodigy the benefit of the doubt, those willing to tolerate Wolf’s eccentricities have reaped great rewards to date. With each previous album, Wolf has tried on a new persona with the enthusiasm of a child playing dress up in his parents’ closet, giddily casting of his old accouterments in favor of a new wardrobe. On The Bachelor, however, Wolf seems to have finally settled on an outfit—a patchwork affair that draws heavily from his previous work. But despite this newfound confidence with regard to his identity, on The Bachelor, Patrick Wolf often struggles as a songwriter. Where his previous records felt vital and exciting, The Bachelor often sounds staid and predictable. And while Wolf has previously flirted with melodrama, on The Bachelor he fully embraces it, lending these 14 songs an almost puerile feel. While “Vulture” hints at a record of sinister pop guided by a confident, steady hand, The Bachelor is clearly not that record. Here’s hoping that The Conqueror is.