Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Strokes – Is This It (2001)

IsThisItIn the pub with Paul before seeing My Bloody Valentine the other week, we talked about how XTRMNTR felt like the moment when the 90s ended, and Paul, who’s younger than me by a few years, suggested that sometimes he thinks of Is This It, some 18 months later, as the moment when the 00s began. With hindsight and a semblance of objectivity, I can see what he means; their stylishly dishevelled take on late 70s NYC postpunk, all metronomic rhythms and choppy guitar riffs and insouciant vocals, certainly opened a door for a huge amount of stuff that followed, established trends and set precedents, setting a flavour for almost all ‘alternative’ ‘rock’ over the next ten years at least.

Is This It also, alongside Rudy Giuliani’s zero-tolerance clean-up of New York, and, ironically and painfully, Osama Bin Laden’s plane-hijacking acolytes, helped trigger a rebranding of the entire city of New York (and thus almost all Western alternative culture, or so it seems on some days), tidied the city up, gentrified previously dodgy areas, pushed the freaks and weirdos out and invited the vegan artisan soap makers and trust-fund hipsters in, everybody stylish, everybody well-funded, everybody beautiful, everybody with a brilliant, marketable idea. Possibly: I’ve only been to NYC once, for a few days, and we barely got out of Manhattan. I thought it was amazing. But the record shops weren’t quite what I’d hoped for.

I bought The Strokes’ debut single, The Modern Age EP, when it came out, because for a few years I was incredibly good at being there when important bands started; I’d made money buying debut 7”s by the likes of Doves and Coldplay in the 90s and selling them on for huge profits when debut albums raised their stock. The Strokes was probably the last time I did that with a new band. I liked The Modern Age, more than Coldplay’s debut but nowhere near as much as The Cedar EP, but it never, ever struck me as the future of anything; I had Television and Talking Heads and Velvet Underground albums, and this was just that all over again, but neutered, wasn’t it? A shamelessly self-absorbed pretty boy singer moaning about getting drunk and screwing up with women, cursing being a dick but not motivated enough to ever stop being a dick, because, you know, handsome rich dicks get away with being dicks because they’re handsome and rich. There was no sign of the actual future at any point, of anything new.

So when the album came out, tight and taut and incredibly short (11 songs done inside 36 and a half minutes), with its suggestive cover and its taunting, knowing title and platonic essence of cool logo, a ‘consultant’ credited in the liner notes, the band in tight trousers and scruffy little denim jackets, I shrugged a little, confessed that the slinky bassline of the opening track was delicious, that “Hard To Explain” and “Someday” and “Last Night” were brilliant, snotty, attitude-laden pop singles, and decided that, maybe, this was the time when I got off the bus a bit. By 2002 I’d taken myself online to find new music almost exclusively, given up on the British inky music press, and started writing myself because no one else was writing what I wanted, or so it seemed.

I have a crazy notion that the human race is on, or rather should be on, an upward-swinging bell-curve of evolution; that we’re journeying together through space to some peak moment of discovery and bliss. When I think about it logically and weigh up the evidence of child-abusing priests and money-obsessed politicians and sexism and racism and homophobia and everything else, I’m pretty certain that this is, in fact, not happening at all, and that we’ve barely evolved psychologically and emotionally and spiritually in tens of thousands of years. But it’s a nice fantasy to have, perhaps. As a result, the greatest music, in my mind, has to have some element of that discovery, of progress, of evolution, of progress and of beauty intrinsically embedded within it. All of those things are absent from The Strokes.

Impeccably tasteful, impeccably bored, impeccably attired, Is This It shirks meaning and responsibility (“Oh dear can’t you see? It’s them it’s not me”), wants nothing more than to get into your apartment and drink your booze and take off your clothes and fuck you, half-heartedly, and leave before morning. It’s the moment when I started to feel old, started to feel that the generation coming up weren’t going to take advantage of what had gone before and use it as a springboard to achieve greater things, but were just going to repeat the easiest, most shot-term, short-sighted bits of instant gratification that everyone else had been guilty of. Say what you like about the babyboomers of the 60s going on to become the establishment they’d once stood in opposition to; at least they’d had some sense that things needed to improve, to change, at some point, even if they went on to betray it, take everything and let the markets take over. This lot, The Strokes and their ilk, had nothing to betray because they didn’t care about anything except themselves. Maybe it’s the best way to be; maybe it’s the best way to succeed. But I suspect not. It depends how you define success.

Sometimes I listen to this record and I enjoy the fact that it’s just 11 great scuzzy pop songs. And sometimes I listen to this record and think it’s an ideological black hole, a vacuum, a vortex, an evil, dark, empty, hollow, selfish, greedy, solipsistic thing, the death of culture, and that it shouldn’t be allowed.


St. Vincent – Actor (2009)

stvincentactorIt starts with a moment of heavenly choir, which collapses into woodwind, a repetitive beat and layers of Annie Clark’s vocals, painting a black hole, warning a lover from a distance, until fat shards of buzzsawing electric guitar flit around the edges as the woodwind swirls, and then erupt into lashing, unholy noise. It’s thrilling and discordant and beautiful all at the same time. This is St. Vincent.

I’d managed to miss St. Vincent’s debut album, Marry Me, in 2007, amidst the tumult of great music that came out that year. So when I noticed Actor riding high at Metacritic, attracting plaudits left, right, and centre, I had little idea who she was. Being a man, and an idiot, I was hesitant about an unknown female singer-songwriter, especially as the reviews, though glowing, seemed unable to clue me in on exactly what was so good about her and this record. But come the summer I was too curious to hold out anymore, and I bought Actor completely unheard, with the thought that perhaps Emma would enjoy it. By winter, after dozens and dozens of plays by mutual consent, it had seeped its way into our brains and bodies so much that we both loved it unashamedly. For what it’s worth, I’d have anointed it as my favourite record of 2009, had I anointed any record with that dubious title.

Throughout the record Annie’s melodies are sweetly subtle and addictive, her arrangements forward thinking, intricate, and just a little bit threatening. Her songs are compelling and accessible, but ever so slightly, and brilliantly, warped. Lyrics are clearly intelligent and precise but often oblique; she writes about love and lust in faintly disconcerting ways, metaphors just a little too concerned with damage and dirt and loss and the thrill of delicious pain (“I’m a wife in watercolours / I can wash away / What seventeen cold showers / Couldn’t wash away”). “Marrow” runs through the geography of the body, squalls of digitised brass and almost unrecognisable guitar noise obliterating the topography, pulling apart yet another celestial chorale.

Had the sonic richness and oddness of Actor been conveyed better in those early reviews, I’d have bought it straight away; insistent, pulsing rhythms, slashing guitars, and lilting “ooohs” drive “Actor Out Of Work” and preface yet more buzzsawing guitar, the tension ramping up and up before it can’t be contained anymore, and it explodes briefly in filthy, compressed torrents. “Just The Same But Brand New” is swooning and dreamy, before huge pillars of percussion parade through the song’s final movement. But it’s not all jarring juxtapositions of sweetness and savagery; “The Bed” and “The Party” are delicate throughout, content to be beautiful without needing to be disruptive.

We saw St. Vincent live a couple of years later, in support of Actor’s follow-up, the jazzy, shifting, sophisticated Strange Mercy. In the flesh Annie Clark is striking, with enormous, luminescent eyes and pearl skin and jet black hair, but her guitar playing is far more notable than her appearance; her fingers barely seem to touch the strings yet summon forth torrents of notes and feedback and wired, wailing riffs and solos. I don’t know much about guitarists but to my ears she sounds like Robert Fripp, extravagant and exciting, virtuosic but not arrogantly so. Part Prince, part Black Flag, part Bowie, avoiding pigeonholes with consummate ease, Annie Clark is obviously, brilliantly talented, and her music is intriguing and compelling in equal measure.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver (2007)

lcdsoundsystem_sound_of_silverIf any band defines or describes or embodies or typifies or captures the spirit or whatever of the 00s, for my particular transatlantic faux-hipster white-boy lower-middle-class web-savvy music geek demographic, then it’s LCD Soundsystem. From the moment I heard “Losing My Edge”, well over a decade ago now, with its litany of tongue-in-cheek, cooler-than-though boasts and name-drops, I was hooked; the references I got excited me and made me feel cool, and the references I didn’t made me want to go and listen to them.

Now that LCD has passed, dissipated into the ether, James Murphy’s schtick is even more patently obvious than it was at the outset: talent borrows; genius steals. His techniques may have been different, and the references he stole from slightly uncommon with, but, with LCD Soundsystem, he was essentially doing something very similar to early hip-hop; taking familiar, established pieces of music and putting his own stamp on them; it’s just that he used a band and a synthesizer to do it rather than a sampler.

So instead of sampling and looping James Brown or Buffalo Springfield or Incredible Bongo Band or Steely Dan or Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone, he’s apeing Brian Eno’s vocals, copying Talking Heads, ripping off “Jamaica Running” by The Pool, nicking the chords and the drums from “Dear Prudence”, surfing on a song named after Daft Punk, stealing bits of Detroit techno, and heaven only knows what else. Someone once said of another band that “the original bits aren’t good, and the good bits aren’t original”; I vaguely suspect that with LCD Soundsystem, if you look hard enough, there aren’t any original bits. But that’s all good.

For those early singles and the eponymous debut album, being the coolest record collector and musical thief on the planet was enough. But there’s only so much mileage in being a name to drop, and with their second album, Murphy managed to inject a dose of emotional heft into LCD Soundsystem’s work; not too much that it became self-serious or uncool, but enough that their music was able to take the step-up from fashionable to genuinely rewarding.

Most of that emotional heft comes from a brace of tracks back-to-back at the centre of the album that deal with mortality and rebirth. But I’ll come back to them in a moment. Elsewhere it’s business as before, but just a little bit better. So “North American Scum” is a rocking dancefloor cry not unlike “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, but just a little more raucous and fun, a little bit cleverer (“New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent” basically distilling Lena Dunham’s Girls into twelve words), while “Us V Them” finds a groove just a touch more sophisticated and compelling than anything on the debut, and “Get Innocuous!” is the most strutting, brilliant Bowie-meets-Talking-Heads-in-Detroit moment imaginable. The title track, meanwhile, is a semi-ludicrous but incredibly self-referential piece of meta-house, which seems to comment explicitly on the very emotional reactions that the rest of the record is inspiring in the listener. The whole album just sounds that little bit better than the debut, too, a little more natural space and room to breathe in the mastering, a little more physicality in the timbres of the instruments. It’s sonically delicious.

And then there are those two songs in the middle: the plangent acid pads of “Someone Great”, and the effervescently profound krautrock of “All My Friends”. The first ruminates on mortality, specifically the death of someone close, personal observations colouring a picture vividly but with essential narrative details left out, which, when combined with the (mostly) detached vocal delivery, allows the listener to project oneself deep into the song’s emotional core. If it matters, for a while I thought it was about the death of a child, but time and interviews and a little digging suggest it’s actually about the death of a therapist – which is perhaps why the narrator can’t talk about it with anyone else. Musically, a relentless synthetic hum and thump is juxtaposed with an incredibly delicate and simple glockenspiel melody working over the top, which creates an analogue safety space for the emotional narrative to play out in. It started life, crazily, as part of Murphy’s 45:33 composition for Nike; literally a running soundtrack. Wow.

“All My Friends” on the other hand is a skittish, febrile, accelerant trip through growing out of one’s youth, jitteringly repetitive piano chords and distracted high-hats and drum rolls backing observations about growing older, accepting responsibilities, one last big night out before stepping into middle age. Possibly. It’s a touching reminiscence, a greying hipster looking back at his irreclaimable youth and deciding against regret. One of my favourite things about music is the ability it has to instil in you a deep sense of nostalgia for emotions and situations you’ve never quite felt, and these two songs do that in spades.

Six years on, Sound Of Silver is still an amazing record. I don’t get it out all that often now, but that’s largely because I listened to it so much and identified with it so hard at the time that I’ve internalized it. Yes, of course, it’s a total homage to James Murphy’s favorite music, but the man has good taste and it’s a surprisingly, disarmingly moving homage that frequently eclipses its influences, both emotionally and physically.

Idlewild – 100 Broken Windows (2000)

idlewild-100-Broken-WindowsIt’s fair to say that I was pretty intense during my first year at university. And my second. But particularly that first year, which started with a 6-week bombardment of Marxist cultural theory designed, seemingly, to make anyone who thought they’d picked a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course drop out (and the drop out rate was massive). Those of us who ‘got it’ found it incredibly profound, swore allegiance against capitalism and never to take jobs in media sales (which felt like the only employability option open to us, other than teaching other people Marxist cultural theory).

I bought a Sony Minidisc Walkman for £250 within about a fortnight and discovered the computer room and internet access, reasoning that if I spent 15 evenings in there talking crap on the chatroom and listening to music and splurging my thoughts onto various music forums that I’d save maybe £20 each time by not going to the pub, and thus be better off. But I ended up drinking during the day instead, so that failed.

There were a lot of late night walks around campus and across the town, headphones on, soundtracked by Minidisc compilations. “You Just Have To be Who You Are” from Idlewild’s debut mini-album, Captain, pummelled me at insane, tinnitus volume on many of them, Roddy Woomble’s closing screams of “And what is important? / And nothing is important!” feeling like the most profound thing ever to a stranded 19-year-old, used to being a big fish in a small pond and now cast onto a huge desert.

Idlewild felt back then as if they’d learnt the same things as us, seen the truth we felt we were seeing, and exploded in incandescent rage, 1000-mile-an-hour songs desperate to spill semiotics and Althusser and Marshall McLuhan through Nirvana-shaped scar tissue. I think I’d read that they’d formed at university and quit their studies. Because, I assumed, they’d been made aware of a fissure into something pointless and true that society was conspiring to ignore. Or so it seemed to me. I listened to “Annihilate Now!” and “I Am A Message” and “A Film For The Future” and “When I Argue I See Shapes” and identified. I’d never been one for overtly heavy, aggressive music particularly, grunge hadn’t spoken to me at all, but this did. Roddy seemed to sing from those first steps into adulthood when you realise that actually, you don’t have a place set at the table, you don’t have a slot to fit in, and that’s precisely where I felt I was.

By 2000 I was, perhaps, a little calmer. Or at least intense in different directions. Idlewild’s second album, 100 Broken Windows, seemed similarly to have calmed a little, but not too much. More mature, but not too mature. They could still barely play, or so it seemed to me compared to the likes of Miles Davis, who I was discovering concurrently; Bob Fairfoull a faintly brutal, bludgeoning bassist, completely sans sophistication, but utterly right for what Idlewild’s music demanded, a determined, relentless momentum beneath the pseudo-profundity of Roddy’s layered vocals and Rod Jones’ lashing, buzzing, thrumming guitar. If Fairfoull had been a more sophisticated musician, Idlewild wouldn’t have worked. Later in their career, Fairfoull left, and was replaced by a more technically proficient musician, and I didn’t give a damn for Idlewild. We saw them live circa 2007, and left early, bored by over-long, duelling guitar solos wrought from listening to too many Neil Young albums. It was a very different experience to gigs circa 2000 or 2003, when Roddy would roll around the floor, screaming and hollering, invisible unless you were in the front row.

I don’t know what these songs are about particularly, with their references to Gertrude Stein and Hugh Miller and talk of maps and pageants and graves. All I know is that the nonsense repetition (“pretend it works a while / it’s transmitted live”) and lonesome violin coda of “Idea Track”, and the humming keyboard riff through “These Wooden Ideas”, and the urgent backing vocals of “Roseability”, and the plangent acceptance of “The Bronze Medal”, and the nostalgic, realist romance of “Let Me Sleep (Next To The Mirror)” seemed to mean a lot to me at the death of my adolescence. And when I put this record on again now, they still do.

Inside a volcano of sound – My Bloody Valentine live

“It makes you wonder, if they’re handing out earplugs to everyone, why they don’t just… y’know, turn it down a bit” commented Paul in the pub before the gig.

“Because sound doesn’t work like that” was the answer from his friend who’d been the previous night, and, like a masochist, was putting himself through it again.

I had a pretty good inkling of what he meant, and the My Bloody Valentine gig experience bore it out. Sound is waves through the air, you don’t just hear it; when it’s loud enough you feel it, physically, in your feet, in your legs, in your chest. Hearing is essentially just feeling sound waves with the sensitive hairs of your inner-ear, your brain interpreting that feeling into auditory signals which can, and usually do, feel like a mental experience rather than a physical one. But that’s a trick of the mind. My Bloody Valentine invert that trick, and make a seemingly mental experience into a physical one.

The gig didn’t start that loud, or didn’t seem to; Em and I both had earplugs in (which I do at most gigs these days, and have for half a decade or more) and whilst the sound seemed clearer and louder than some gigs I’ve seen when I’ve had them in, it didn’t seem… dangerous. But by halfway through the gig, when “Only Shallow” was unveiled, and “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, and something else from Isn’t Anything that was fiercely pummelling and physical, I popped my earplugs out for a second and realised that things had become extraordinarily loud, the volume almost imperceptibly upping from song to song.

I’ve often wondered how Kevin Shields made the sounds he did on record, how the melodic toplines of Loveless, which sound like synthesisers but which we know aren’t, are coaxed from a guitar. I thought seeing them live would enlighten me, but I’m none the wiser; there seems little correlation between what My Bloody Valentine physically do onstage and the sound that erupts from them. Sometimes Debbie Googe plays her bass in a way you’d recognise, for instance, but mostly she seems to strum at it, gently, as if it were an acoustic guitar at a campfire sing-a-long. Her strums come from the shoulder, whilst Bilinda Butcher’s come from the wrist; they’re both static other than that, pretty much, their entire bodies still, Debbie’s arm moving, Bilinda’s wrist pivoting.

Colm is, unsurprisingly if you think about Isn’t Anything, a bizarrely powerful drummer; so much of My Bloody Valentine has seemed so ethereal to me over half my lifetime that the bludgeoning strength of the drums took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The songs from Isn’t Anything were the most brutal and physical, searing rock’n’roll destructions; those from Loveless were most beautiful, trippy creations that bend your perceptions; “Soon” was astonishing, psychedelia made real. The new songs, from mbv, were the strangest. The three eras fitted together with far more logic live than I would have expected, about a third of the gig from each.

I’ve been expecting the eruption, the volcano of sound, that comes during that pause in “You Made Me Realise”, since I was about 16 and first heard Loveless, since my elder brother gave me a compilation of Creation Records singles that included “You Made Me Realise”. I’ve read about it levitating people, about it making people feel sick, about it lasting half an hour and venue security guards with air-traffic-control headphones on mouthing to each other “what the fuck is this shit?” as the maelstrom bends time. A guy in front of us started filming it on his phone, and gave up after eleven minutes. It went on, I think, for about half as long again. A steady stream of people shuffled past us and out of the auditorium. Maybe they had tube trains to catch. Maybe it was too much. I laughed my head off at points, turned around to look at faces; some aghast, some ecstatic, some bewildered, as if they didn’t know to expect it.

The volume of this volcanic eruption is phenomenal, alarming. I worried for the fabric of the building we were in. The noise seemed to shift in pitch and tone, slowly increase in volume, vibrating different parts of your body as it changed. I took my earplugs out at one point, for about thirty seconds or so, and the physical crush of sound that was affecting my whole body suddenly consumed the inside of my head too. Not everyone was wearing earplugs. Who knows how those who didn’t managed to get home afterwards; their senses and orientation must have been mashed.

We left the gig giddy and exhilarated, a little baffled and intensely impressed. My Bloody Valentine are a band Em and I both share love for, a band we both brought to the table when we got together many years ago. It’s taken us 12 years, almost, to see them live; I hope we get to see them again some day.

Junior Boys – Last Exit (2004)

junior_boys_last_exitA lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou) who I loved and who seemed to turn everything to gold as far as my ears were concerned.

But when I actually listened to Junior Boys, with the expectation of great- nay, ASTONISHING things – nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps – and I was left feeling shortchanged.

Because what I heard was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – it just wasn’t at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.

Many years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, of that there is no doubt (“Birthday”, “High Come Down”), and some delicious grooves too (“Under The Sun”), plus enough moments of vatic beauty (the coda of “Teach Me How To Fight”) to stir the soul. But were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? You know, the things that would be necessary for a “re-imagined future” for “white pop”? I wasn’t sure.

A lot of people in those early days talked about how Junior Boys had interpolated ideas and rhythms from the likes of Timbaland, who I was obsessed with back then, and other r&b and mainstream pop, but I wasn’t hearing the necessary energy and communication of real pop in Last Exit. It didn’t push buttons in the same way as Sugababes or Justin Timberlake or Nelly Furtado or Missy Elliott or Aaliyah; it sounded like a ghost of pop music, as if someone admired the technique but didn’t quite love the feeling.

So I listened to Last Exit a dozen or more times, didn’t quite hear whatever it was that had so inspired a handful of people, and put it away. I bought their next album, So This Is Goodbye, a couple of years later, gave it a cursory listen, and then left them both on the shelf.

Last September, Tom played Last Exit at our record club, and I was intrigued all over again. He played it on vinyl, which, obviously I’m normally not keen on, but after being so used to MP3s and then a CD, the warmth and hum of vinyl, which usually feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human.

I’ve played it quite a few times since then, and I feel like its skeletal, atmospheric songs – which are less songs, really, than vignettes, a lot of the time – make more sense to me now, the way they avoid the obvious hook, the way such sparse arrangements and such unassuming (for want of a better word) vocals pack such emotional resonance into such seemingly clinical spaces.

Intriguingly, the second half of the record, which is largely absent of the influence of Johnny Dark, one half of the initial Junior Boys partnership with Jeremy Greenspan, is the half I like best; it’s arguably the more linear, obvious half, but we’re talking the politics of small differences here. Dark, who, as far as I can tell, was an unusual character, left halfway through recording and was replaced by Matt Didemus, who’d been the duo’s engineer. Didemus and Greenspan have continued as a duo, and made a handful of records since; all well received, but none fawned over or in receipt of such hyperbole as this. I like So This Is Goodbye well enough, and there are occasional remixes by and for the likes of Caribou which are always worth checking out, but I’m not in love with anything by them. Still, there’s something very special, and perhaps unique, about this record.

Patrick Wolf – Wind in the Wires (2005)

Wind+in+the+WiresMy wife and I both bought Patrick Wolf’s debut album independently of each other, during a spell of our early relationship when we weren’t properly together. Neither of us knew the other had it, and we each liked its violin-folk, glitchy beats and Freudian wailing well enough. About a year after we’d got back together we went to see him play live at Exeter’s Phoenix, during the tour for his second album, Wind in the Wires, which we’d both bought (as we continued to do with albums we both liked until we moved in together, when we sold hundreds of duplicates and helped furnish our first flat), knowingly this time, and enjoyed quite a bit more.

Seeing Patrick perform these songs live, stripped to just his voice, one accompanying instrument (violin, ukulele, or piano), and a barefooted drummer, made us fall absolutely in love with him, and this record. He had to fold his gangly, six-foot-plus frame around what seemed like a tiny upright piano. Dressed as a Victorian street urchin, he looked like a Tim Burton animation. I’d said before we walked in that I suspected he was just the kind of lanky streak of arty piss that Emma would normally crush on, a notion she had baulked at. As we left the gig, awestruck, she whispered to me “he’s beautiful” and I laughed my head off.

We’ve followed him closely ever since, buying albums, singles, mugs, tote bags, seeing him live every time he comes within 100 miles of us (and occasionally when he doesn’t: a London Palladium gig in 2009 is one of my all-time live music highlights). I’ve reviewed most of his albums for one publication or website or another, and interviewed him back in 2007 around the release of The Magic Position, when he only half-jokingly asked if I’d be his manager…

I say half-jokingly, because he’s a divisive figure: I know some music fans and writers who cannot stand to listen to his records for the ostentation and diva-ish-ness they perceive as being his character. When I interviewed him (over the phone) I found him to be compelling and compassionate, if a little controlling (he is a complete perfectionist regarding his music). His hair has regularly been coloured shocking red or stark blonde, his face glittered, his wardrobe veering into sparkly silver shoes or ostentatious feathered capes; in short, he is, and can be, and will be in the future, a glamorous figure, stomping and strutting, as interested in the performativity and artifice and presentation of pop as he is in the art of it. But if you know how interested he is in the art of it…

There’s a musicality, a compositional ease, to Patrick Wolf’s music, or so it seems to me, a mere listener and fan who doesn’t play a note and never has. It’s the way he moves through a tune and from tune to tune, which manifests itself particularly on Wind in the Wires, which few of his contemporaries can get close to, for me. Also, he is, hands down, the strongest, most powerful, most moving live singer I have ever heard, an enormous voice with the power and control of a Scott Walker. And he plays everything, from harps to violas to ukuleles to electric guitars, synths, Moog, drum machines, Ondes Martenot, Cristal Bachet, vibraphone, timpani… And then there are the collaborations; Matthew Herbert, Tilda Swinton, Eliza Carthy, Alex Empire and Marianne Faithful, plus indie guitarists and singers, classical harpists, his family, and heaven only knows who else. He’s a complete musical polyglot, crossing from pop to folk to thumping techno to blissed-out disco to punky alternative rock to chamber music and beyond.

I could have listed almost all of Patrick’s 00s records here, but I’ve decided to focus on just this one, his second record, his only album where his hair in the cover photo is (close to) its natural colour. It is, by his standards, stripped back and reserved, a quiet (by and large) and ruminative record, made in exile from his home during a flight to Cornwall in an attempt to escape the machinations and soul-erosion of the London music scene that he’s been entrenched in since he was a teenager.

It begins with a song about being tired of the London scene, leeched dry by libertines and lasciviousness, and winds its way to space and fresh air in the south west, depicting the journey, epiphanies along the way, a period of realisation, and finally, to close, the return leg back home, enervated and positive and with a finished record to press. It could be taken as a concept album if one wanted. I adore it, and as much as I love his other records, this is the one that really stands out to me. Perhaps it’s because he’s singing about places where I grew up – the second song is called “Teignmouth”, and describes the rail journey I took every day to school – or perhaps it’s because there’s a complete lack of ego and artifice here. Maybe it just works better as a whole, with its brief, linking compositions and segues.

There are still pop thrills to be had – the clip-clopping rhythm and irresistible violin riff of “The Libertine” and the stomping, spitting sexuality of “Tristan” – but it’s the slower songs, the title track, “Teignmouth”, “This Weather”, which have left the longest lasting impressions upon me, their melodies, both considered and unfettered, which clench most at my heart. If I were to try and place this record in a lineage it would be one of pastoral English exploration, alongside Robert Wyatt and Kate Bush and Talk Talk and PJ Harvey, but there’s more here than that reductive comparison can explain. And after all, Patrick is a city boy.

We’ve been watching him for a decade now, fascinated and bedazzled and intrigued. Long may we continue to be so.