Flamboyant, extravagant, even audacious, Patrick Wolf's public image may have garnered him some notoriety, but it's his skill with songcraft that has won him praise. Now Wolf stands poised to tackle the mainstream with his forthcoming The Magic Position.
From Windswept Moors to Mirrorballs
As with many great artists before him (from early Bowie to Björk), Patrick Wolf defies categorization. He constantly bends the rules of musical genres in order to create his own, while adopting new styles or guises before the music press have the chance to pigeonhole him. So it should come as no surprise following the dark, melancholic, folksy exploration of his previous offering, Wind in the Wires, that Wolf should describe his forthcoming new album entitled The Magic Position (scheduled for release February 27 in the UK) as "full of ecstatic, giddy pop-songs." Live performances, numerous interviews, and a recent signing with Loog (a subsidiary of Polydor) have all suggested that this forthcoming effort could finally propel him into the mainstream.
From South London, within his musical family he learnt to play instruments ranging from the harpsichord to the theremin, and even the baritone ukulele (an instrument he describes as all at once "ecstatic," "melancholy," and "sorrowful"). Incessant bullying throughout his teenage years forced him to change schools, and in the long run led him to drop out and leave home to fend for himself at 16.
It is these turbulent early experiences that appear to have aided the versatility of his sound and the forthright emotional depth of his lyrics. One of his most affecting lines appears in "The Childcatcher", from Lycanthropy, "You gave me shoes and pretty clothes / And I gave you what I had between my legs". Due to such bold statements as this in both lyrics and conversation (Wolf declared to NME that "Liam Gallagher should die"), Wolf could readily be misconstrued as being attention seeking. Others, on viewing the video to "Wind in the Wires", where he writhes around in slow-motion wearing only what appears to be torn up bed sheet, could label him pretentious.
However, in interviews, he speaks with an articulate and refreshing honesty, recently stating that "My secret fantasy is to see someone in a karaoke or on Stars in Their Eyes doing a song of mine." It is comments like these -- bare of musical snobbery and underpinned by a subtle sense of humour -- that make Patrick Wolf such a rare, intriguing prospect. His first two records, the identity-searching debut Lycanthropy (2003) and the acclaimed Wind in the Wires (2005), have combined more personality and innovation into two hours of listening time than the recent wave of MOR-friendly singer-songwriters and identikit "indie" posers clogging up the A-lists at present.
Lycanthropy -- defined as the transformation into or the belief in a highly melancholic state that one is a wolf -- marked the beginning phase of Patrick Wolf's career. Brimming with violent eclecticism and fearless lyrics addressing rape, homelessness, and paranoia, it sounded like the work of an artist a attempting to decipher his own strengths and weaknesses by trying out every button on the mixing desk. Even though the production lacked clear focus and the heavy subject matter at times descended into infantile musings that begged the listener to be shocked, it saw Wolf introducing himself to the world with a vast wardrobe of flamboyant self-made outfits, a shock of platinum blonde hair, and healthy amount of potential. Claims at the time that he had already written large chunks of his follow-up releases confirmed the ambitions of a songwriter who had only just begun.
In 2005, he returned almost unrecognisable (visually and vocally) with the acclaimed Wind in the Wires, an inherently more focused and coherent affair, sounding like PJ Harvey's Is This Desire? (one of Wolf's key influences, along with Joni Mitchell) being performed by Nick Cave. Opening with the line "The motorway won't take a horse / The wanderer has found a course to follow", the lyrics were sprinkled with rich poetic imagery that no longer read like diary entries of an angst-fuelled teen. One could visualize the barren windswept moors he was describing as his voice glided over the stark electro-folk-driven atmospheres with a sense of control only hinted at in previous work. The highlight, "Tristan", combined a menacing vocal with beats depicting the footsteps of a man searching for his next victim to tell the story of an invincible historical character constantly reborn throughout literature. The phrase "mature beyond their years" gets used far too often to describe a new artist or songwriter, but in this instance it would be difficult to argue that the comment wasn't merited.
Inevitably, the only aspect that has eluded Wolf so far is huge sales. However, entering phrase three of his career, armed for the first time with a major-label deal plus an album overflowing with a more accessible set of upbeat pop songs, this could all change. The first single, "Accident and Emergency", displays his new poppier direction in a nutshell. Electro-beats thump ecstatically against Wolf's restless vocals as sirens and horns blear in the backdrop; all the while sounding like a hedonistic cousin of the ominous "Tristan" whose primary aim is to celebrate life rather than fight against it. However, despite possessing Wolf's trademark unpredictable instrumentation, the lyrics are little more than everyman musings ("If you've never lost / How are you gonna know if you've won"), which suggests a dilution Wolf's talent in order to appeal to the mass market.
Thankfully, other snippets of The Magic Position (showcased while touring this year and via the Internet through videocasts) have shown few other signs of this happening. "Adder", amidst shuddering violins, showcases a welcome return to Wolf's now signature leftfield mystical lyrical content. The deceptively chirpy new ballad "Bluebells", while following a more conventional song structure than is usual for Wolf, packs as much of an emotional punch as his previous excursions. Judging by these two efforts, it's not wishful thinking to assume that he has managed to sprinkle enough commercial gloss over the course of The Magic Position to appeal to an audience outside of his cult fan-base without sacrificing any of his artistic identity in the process. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the thought of Wolf breaking into the Top 40 may appear to some long-time fans a slightly dubious honour. However, in an era where the excitement and rewards for artistic merit have become increasingly stagnant in televised award ceremonies (prime examples being the Brits and the NME's last year), wouldn't it be beneficial to have someone as far removed from the lowest common denominator as Patrick Wolf around to add a touch of idiosyncrasy to proceedings?
Whether he remains an under-appreciated cult-pop icon or The Magic Position finally launches him fully into mainstream consciousness (and his dream of someone performing "Accident and Emergency" on the next series of X-Factor comes true) is yet to be seen. Either way, purists who would prefer Wolf to stay away from the artistic restriction of the mainstream can rest easy with the thought that he has already planned his fourth album to be his darkest exploration of human emotions yet.