Two kings of the indie dancefloor unite for a warm, timeless take on 20th century pop and rock
Patrick Wolf : Wind In The Wires
...quietly pursuing his singular vision to devastating effect...
In 1972, the British art critic Roger Cardinal published the book Outsider Art. In it, he explored the “art brut” movement, an international network of artists (as opposed to the eccentric London art-punks) who prided themselves on their originality. They refused to rehash old ideas, scorned formal training and rejected conventional painting styles. Prof Cardinal, we’re guessing, would like‘Wind In The Wires’. Or, at least, totally understand where Patrick Wolf is coming from.
A creative law unto himself, Patrick’s 2003 debut, ‘Lycanthropy’, mixed folk music, riot-breaks and celebratory songs about cutting off your own penis. It was, on many levels, quite unlike anything NME had ever heard before. Sonically, we were shocked and awed that a record could be so monstrously electronic, so pop and so neo-classically swish all at the same time. But, more than that, this was a record with soul, a record of poetry, a record – given Patrick’s soaring, snarling theatrical voice – of quite glorious melodrama.
By now, of course, we all know the back story to‘Lycanthropy’; that Patrick wrote much of it in his teens at the same time he was being tormented at school by bullying classmates. But, even before you found that out, it was clear that this was something real. Patrick tore through those tall tales of self-affirmation and hymns to personal freedom as if his life depended on it. Which, when he wrote them, they probably did.
On the face of it, ‘Wind In The Wires’ was written in a similar state of emotional flux. At odds with his old record label, widely regarded (he felt) as some sort of musical clown figure and feeling increasingly isolated (“I fell out with the whole of London in one day,” he puts it, wryly), Patrick cut off all his hair and ran away to Cornwall, writing much of his second album in an isolated clifftop chalet.
If, however, you can hear hurt and anger in ‘The Libertine’ or recklessness in the titanic ‘Tristan’ (which sounds like ’80s glamour pusses ABC meets techno glitchers Squarepusher), ‘Wind In The Wires’ is, for the most part, far less highly-strung than‘Lycanthropy’, if no less startling. By the time Patrick had written the spectral, FX-swaddled title track (in the aftermath of a terrific storm which felt like it was going to tip his wooden shack into the sea), his frustration and rage had subsided, to give way to a more singer-songwriterly, reflective sound. Where ‘Lycanthropy’ flashed with energy and nervous creative excitement, his new album finesses and evolves this hybrid of pop and medieval folk and electronica, without losing any of the jagged edge.
In less talented hands, his opening statement of intent, ‘The Libertine’, a disgusted, distorted broadside at the fatuous nature of modern British culture, might sound predictable – a calculated attempt, particularly given its passing reference to Pete Doherty, to drum up a bit of controversy. What follows is so original, however, that the track retains a powerful moral gravitas.
Patrick may not lay out a credible plan for withdrawal from Iraq over a techno beat or condense A Brief History Of Time into a three-minute tune made entirely from samples of aardvarks farting (which, given the marker he lays down on‘The Libertine’, you may argue he should), but this album is certainly different enough to justify Patrick’s cultural indignation and self-confidence. In these introspective songs of love, life and the West Country – the tone set by the restless, rootless melancholy of ‘Teignmouth’ – he engages with all sorts of stuff that you just don’t hear talked about on daytime Radio 1: storms, death, the darkness of hedonism, the romance of Radio 4’s shipping forecast. Musically meanwhile, although Patrick may have antecedents, such as Björk, Kate Bush, obscure ’80s folkies Band Of Holy Joy, you will be hard-pressed to discern any direct influence from any of them. Indeed, he may share a few florid vocal tics with the similarly grand and passionate ’60s crooner Scott Walker, but that is less important than the other characteristic they share: namely, a swashbuckling sonic adventurism.
Old before his time and wise beyond his years, Patrick was already dreaming of a quiet life in the country on ‘Lycanthropy’ and much of ‘Wind In The Wires’ is taken up with ambiguous dreams of rural domesticity, such as on the madrigal ‘The Railway House’ or‘The Gypsy King’. The yearning beauty of his songs and the vivid nature of his language – “When the birds fly south reach up and hold their tails” he advises on‘Teignmouth’ – make it sound like best idea anyone has ever had.
If that makes Wolf sound like a woolly hippy, by the way, he isn’t. He can do cynical and smart too. For instance, on last track‘Lands End’ – a ray of bouncing tech-folk sunlight – Patrick wearily envisages promoting this record and “doing battle with the fickle press”. It is winningly self-aware. The music may be crucially important, but Patrick already regards the grubby business of selling it as utterly ridiculous, which is something it takes most bands years to learn.
Of course, there are going to be plenty of people who won’t be able to cope with all this. Keane fans, Jet fans, the people who made Linkin Park stars: all those people are going to have trouble processing a 6ft ukulele-toting cyber-minstrel in homemade shoes. At the same time, many people who see themselves as far more sophisticated, people whose taste in music runs all the way from Razorlight to The Libertines, may well take one look at Mr Wolf and his singular dress sense, and dismiss him as some Hoxton fashion twat. Such people, however, are idiots.
There is nothing particularly contrived or self-conscious about the way Patrick sounds or looks. There is no reason to be suspicious. He is neither Marilyn Manson nor Selfish Cunt, he is no empty headed exhibitionist. Rather, his personality was shaped by the experience of going to a school where the boys did military service rather than PE, which tells you everything you need to know about how Patrick and his hobbies (writing fanzines, playing theremin) went down. So, after years of alienation and abuse, he simply stopped worrying about fitting in, being cool or any of that bullshit. Instead, he followed his instincts. He learned to love (and suit) himself – or, at least, live in his own skin: “I really believe in self-sufficiency, that moment when you go, ‘Oh God, I’m alone in the world, but I can deal with this. I’m going to survive.’”
If ‘Wind In The Wires’ is not exactly an innocent record, then, it is certainly sincere. And that sincerity, allied to such extraordinary sounding songs, makes for an exhilarating experience. Indeed, while it may sound like hyperbole for someone who is just 21 years old and has only two albums to his name, Patrick Wolf already bears comparison with Aphex Twin, Prince, Björk, David Bowie and all the other iconic outsiders who have kept music fresh and, just occasionally, nudged it into wholly new territory.
Where Patrick goes from here, we have no idea. Such original musical figures do not have carefully planned career paths, so we won’t make any wild predictions for the Wolf. Suffice to say this boy is a genuine star.
You can listen to the album here now. Simply Click here to access the Patrick Wolf listening post
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