Review: “Lupercalia” by Patrick Wolf

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Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Whereas his 2009 “The Bachelor” was too extravagant–too “promiscuous,” shall we say–Patrick Wolf’s fifth studio album “Lupercalia” is a more clean-cut effort. Which is fitting, given that its songs were inspired by an impending marriage, having made of Wolf not just a more grounded husband-to-be but also a more discriminating musician.

The album’s title comes from the Roman festival of love from which possibly derives our modern-day Valentine’s Day. With its odes to love, the album serves, as was Wolf’s intent, as a soundtrack of sorts to accompany one’s first kiss. Listen for example to the opener, “The City,” a defiant paean to love bolstered by the soulful strains of a saxophone (it is also the album’s second single, for which Wolf released an Abercrombie & Fitch-y video). “House,” Wolf’s third single off the album (accompanied by a Henri Rousseau-inspired music video; see embedded YouTube player below), is a smile-coaxing rumination of having found peace through one’s lover (“And to my mind reassure / The native has returned / …Oh, the love makes this house a home”). And the album’s closer, “The Falcons,” is the perfect cap to an overall sunny album, a song of contagious optimism (“Now things are looking up, up, up for you / Looking up, up, up for me / Looking up, up, up for us / Finally”).

Patrick Wolf defies the odds stacked against a city romance in "The City."

Mentions of marriage abound as well, as in “Bermondsey Street” (“He fumbles for a wedding ring”) and “The Future” (“Sweet dream that you’ll come near / I see my future clear / And the threshold appears / And I am carrying you over, carrying me over”). Through this album, the reinvigorated Wolf heralds that his is a serious sort of love, not the throwaway kind of rock stars and groupies.

Wolf had envisioned “Lupercalia” as the second part of a double album, with “The Bachelor” serving as its first part. Approached from this angle, one appreciates the continuity, of the bachelor now getting married, and in the process the wild child being tamed. Initially titled “The Conqueror” (thank goodness Wolf had foregone another and more laughable possible alternative, “The Fiancé”), one can see the theme of battle, and of love winning (conquering all, as the cliché goes) the artist was evincing with “Lupercalia.” After the sonic and thematic aggressiveness of “The Bachelor,” here we see a battle-hardened man “infected” and thereby softened by love, a warrior who has capitulated to an armistice with his conqueror, as shown in “William,” an ode to Wolf’s future husband (“And I showed you my ugly heart / Yet you did not surrender / …Oh William, will you be my conqueror?”), and most obviously in “Armistice,” a song about yearning for one’s love, inspired by a Manx Gaelic song. This is a far cry from the title song of his previous album (based on a traditional Appalachian song) in which the same Wolf crooned, “I’ll never marry, marry at all / No one will wear my silver ring.”

Gone are his over-ornate "Bachelor" days; "Lupercalia" sees a disarmed Patrick Wolf

The resulting softening is evident. Restraint never has been Wolf’s strong suit (a crude analogy would be to think of him as a male Lady Gaga), but here he shows a remarkable amount of it. That’s not to say “Lupercalia” is entirely without theatrics; rather, it just has less of it, a much more manageable lack. As I’d earlier mentioned, “The Bachelor” was an overladen enterprise, left unchecked with too long a running time (52 minutes, with 14 songs). “Lupercalia” on the other hand seems a better edited endeavor, with 11 songs and a 41-minute running time. Also gone are the Tilda Swinton voice-overs and other over-precious concepts that only serve to bury the artist’s vision.

Still, the album is not without its flaws. Wolf has often teetered on earnestness, and continues that pattern here. As a result of this and a meditated effort at simplicity, he often finds himself steeped in cliché, as with “Together” (“So divided we fall, but stronger we stand”).

And though they are lovely, I found myself wondering at the insertion of certain songs, which differ in mood and theme from their sisters. Case in point:  the dolorous “The Days,” “Slow Motion” (“Living in slow motion / Breathless corrosion / Waiting for the kiss of life”), and “Time of My Life,” a sort of happy break-up song (“Thank you / for the time of my life”). Perhaps though it is the narrative progression of the songs I find disconcerting, not the inclusion of the “sadder” songs. More fitting perhaps would have been to start with turmoil carried over presumably from “The Bachelor.” For example, starting with the heartbreak of “Time of My Life,” and progressing to the interlude of “William” with its invitation to be conquered by love, and perhaps transitioning to the make-up song “Together.” And onwards to “The Days” and “Slow Motion” before making an ascent with the bubblier songs that currently serve as bookends to the whole.

But far be it from me to edit, because in the end, love isn’t about intellectualizing. It’s about feeling. And “Lupercalia” beautifully captures that feeling of love, of being within its replenishing depths.

Patrick Wolf’s “Lupercalia” is out June 20.

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Elsewhere: “Music Review: Kate Bush’s ‘Director’s Cut'” on Ruelle Electrique

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The incomparable Kate Bush releases a, erm, "comparable" album of reworked older songs.

Ruelle Electrique just published a music review I wrote of Kate Bush’s “Director’s Cut.” The album, in which the songwriter revisits and revises some old classics from 1989’s “The Sensual World” and 1993’s “The Red Shoes, is a mixed bag, imbuing a plaintive maturity to some of the songs, while stripping others of their former dynamism. Still, a sub-par Kate Bush beats your usual fare of singer/songwriters, and “Director’s Cut” serves to whet hardcore fans’ appetites for her next offering of new songs (which hopefully will not take another hundred years to be released).

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