If ‘Lycanthropy’ – [a]Patrick Wolf[/a]’s first album – was an exploration of how to transform oneself into another form, then ‘Lupercalia’ is the end result of the experiment. The original Lupercalia was a pre-Roman festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It was a coming together of people and community, and it’s therefore fitting that ‘Lupercalia’ the album is a celebration too. For the first time, Wolf is celebrating not what he wants – but what he has. And, more importantly, he’s celebrating not what he’s found in himself – but what he has found in someone else.
On ‘Magic Position’, Wolf has explained, he sang of a “Boney M kind of love”, whereas ‘The Bachelor’ – ‘Lupercalia’’s predecessor – was a “Bob Dylan kind of love”. Speaking of ‘Lupercalia’, he claimed that, “I would call this a [a]Leonard Cohen[/a] and [a]Joni Mitchell[/a] kind of love. Something that’s wiser, and more knowledgeable.” Joni and Lenny don’t quite hit the mark, though: ‘Lupercalia’, to continue the metaphor, is more a [a]Paul Simon[/a] kind of love. It’s occasionally ‘You Can Call Me Al’, but with an underlying brilliance that becomes ‘Graceland’. There are forgettable moments, like ‘The Future’, but also moments so breathtaking that it’s difficult to believe they actually happened – like ‘Armistice’ and ‘Slow Motion’.
The album opens on single ‘The City’. With an “OMG IT’S SUMMER” exuberance and Clarence Clemons-esque sax solo, it’s wonderful. But, amid the rest of the record, it sits uneasily – not least thematically. Singing of how “I won’t let this city destroy our love”, it seems ill at ease with an album that is essentially a love song to London. Wolf has long made a point of running away from domesticity, and on ‘The Bachelor’, London seemed such a threatening place, with suicides (‘The Sun Is Often Out’) and rain and a need for guidance from Tilda Swinton. On ‘Lupercalia’, it’s a place where love grows and the sun shines. It’s home.
On ‘House’, Wolf whoops, “the native has returned”, and sings of how he “loves to hear those conkers fall/Smash them on the Southwark stone”. Equally, ‘Bermondsey Street’’s opening couplet shows Wolf’s skills for nuance – encapsulating a small world in 30 syllables – “She kisses him on Bermondsey Street/Rises high on the balls of her feet/Declares this the greatest love/Of the century”.
‘Armistice’ is exquisite. Making use of an Armenian instrument called a dudok (it has a keening sound), cristal Baschet and glass harmonica, it sounds otherworldly – but also as familiar as a folk song. In part, this is due to it interpolating part of an old Manx-Gaelic song called ‘Blackbird’ (keep an ear out for the “chomreedhoo” refrain – which means ‘coat of black’). Wolf’s baritone is caring and cautious, as he sings that “You wait to find this man/Who’s loved you your whole life/So come closer to where we belong”. Like its title, it’s a laying down of arms – no emotional barriers, just honesty. As such, it sounds hollow when Wolf boasts that he’s “happy without you” when ‘Time Of My Life’ presents itself, nestled next to an ode to Wolf’s fiancé, ‘William’, and sure enough, he concedes on the beautifully simple Theremin waltz ‘Slow Motion’ that “I was too proud for help, too scared to grow old”.
Wolf has abandoned cumbersome metaphors and literary allusions, and in Disney ballad-style, croons that “you gave me the kiss of life”. A baroque middle eight, layered with violins, accompanies his pleas to “wake me out of that deep sleep darling”. It’s perfect. If, as he sings, “love makes the house a home”, then by the same token, love makes the Wolf a man. And that’s a transformation to celebrate.