Already a veteran of two wildly idiosyncratic but commercially ignored solo albums, 23-year-old Patrick Wolf has made unquestionably his finest, most accessible album to date with The Magic Position. It’s a bold, strutting release positively bursting with melody and colour that finally does justice to his impeccably dramatic pop-star personality.
In all its electronic whirs and clicks and sexual ambiguity, The Magic Position’s predecessor, 2005’s Wind in the Wires was very definitely a 21st century break-up album, but like Lycanthropy before it, it was still haunted by the weird murmurs of long-passed Victorian stylings that have characterised Wolf’s strangely glamorous chimney sweep persona. Wind in the Wires was crawling with moonlit songs that seemed like they were being whispered into the 4am wind. If you gave it time to reveal itself and for the dense gloominess to unravel, it became a starkly unique and beautiful record — albeit one which was destined to only find a limited audience. The Magic Position is far less of an acquired taste, and whilst it still stutters with dazzling invention and fearless imagination, the songs here are grand and dramatic, and crying out to be heard as widely and loudly as possible.
And what songs they are. Drawing comparisons to both Hunky Dory and Beck’s Odelay, The Magic Position sounds like that wonderful moment in a songwriter or a band’s life when every new song they write is at least a hundred times better than anything they’ve done before. From the stately violin melody that drifts in to introduce “Overture” to the gorgeous starlit miniature ballads and interludes that are sprinkled throughout the album, the music on The Magic Position is touched by a rare imagination and an indefinable magic. The record’s lead single and its arresting statement of intent is “Accident and Emergency”, a fabulous, kaleidoscopic pop song, bound up with a ton of heartfelt optimism. It lollops along to an orchestral crash and clatter of bells and brass and handclaps, before the dancefloor rhythm drops, and Wolf croons his surest melody to date in a deliciously rich baritone, “…If you never lose/ How you gonna know when you’ve won/ And if it’s never dark/ How you gonna know the sun.”
Before that, both “Overture” and “The Magic Position” are songs that mark a giant leap forwards from Wolf’s previous incarnation as a bedroom troubadour. The sound is wide open and alive as the melodies twist and tumble into the light. The title track in particular is an incredible Technicolor pop song, the staccato strings and spinning keyboards sounding like the best fairground you ever went to as a kid — all swirling lights and candy floss melody. Even when Wolf draws the curtains half way through the record for the jazz-flecked romantic ballad, “Augustine” and the flickering instrumental “Secret Garden”, things never rest quite where your ears expect them to, such are the musical left turns and unexpected classical flourishes. That this mini-lull is followed by the hook-laden disco dance of “Get Lost”, just about sums this remarkable album up.
All the way through, the marriage of twinkling, rackety analog electronica and all manner of classical instruments, organs and ukuleles is effortlessly enthralling. Even when the scattergun ideas sometimes fail to ignite like on the languid duet with Marianne Faithful, “Magpie”, there is still a kind of glory in the sheer wit and invention on display in these few failed experiments.
For anyone who has enjoyed even the briefest of flirtations with pop music, The Magic Position is as bold and captivating a record as you will surely hear all year. Its a virtuoso collection of songs and performances that constantly surprise and delight with their arrangements and inspired inversions of the pop formula. The Magic Position is an unexpected triumph of ambition and magic over blandness — of unashamed, major-key widescreen, emotions over weary uniformity, that marks the first blossoming of a uniquely gifted artist.