My 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.