Has it really been a decade of Patrick Wolf? Five albums in and the perpetually fresh-faced pop outsider still feels like the new kid; a wonderful, bonkers, sad/happy secret known to waifs and strays the world over but a mystery to your average Primark punter; skirting the mainstream despite grandiose gems like ‘The Magic Position’ and ‘Hard Times’, part of a great tradition of cult acts with devoted fanbases and a beautiful need to dress like a bellend. Like the Manics, Suede, Amanda Palmer and Tori Amos before him Wolf inspires complete devotion from the flotsam and jetsam of the popscene, his front rows jammed with sad-eyed dreamers with tears in their eyes and glitter on their cheeks.
Never one to seek the obvious route, he’s celebrating ten years in the biz with Sundark and Riverlight, foregoing the usual 'Best Of' format in favour of re-recording old songs, ditching the electronics, the drums and the loud guitars for delicately picked ukulele, dulcimer, piano, harp, violin (all played by Wolf) and the bare-bones of an orchestra. The result is a beautifully constructed, wintery heart-stopper of a record.
We get two discs of songs picked from across the last ten years, Sundark featuring the darker, lonelier material and Riverlight ostensibly the happier, more care-free end of the spectrum. Wolf has carefully selected moments that not only fit the stripped back feel and showcase his best writing, but slot together as neatly as any concept album - for a record written across a decade it's remarkably consistent, a double-disc outsiders’ journey forever in search of somewhere to belong and someone to be. Thus 2002's 'London', a love-letter to the capital written when Wolf was still in his teens, can sit next to 2011's 'House', penned by a man approaching 30, rootless thanks to a decades touring and clinging to the place he can call his own. They feel like they're telling the same story.
A few songs do lose something in the paring down but most shine brighter for the makeunder, allowing Wolf’s rich voice to engage directly with the emotional heart of his work. Pervy electro-stomper ‘Vulture’ (from 2009) is born again as a show-stopping torch song, that voice purring beneath, and then soaring over rippling piano in a proper goosebumps moment, while 2005’s ‘The Libertine’ becomes a jaunty Cossack dance. ‘Bermondsey Street’ is wonderful, previously among the simpler, more beatific moments in the canon it becomes far more powerful bookended by spoken messages of support for Russia’s persecuted LGBT community from fans around the world (Wolf poses on the cover with a gusli, a traditional Russian instrument gifted to him by fans there, and the record is dedicated to them. It’s a nice touch.) Right in the centre, amid the frost and the tears ‘The Magic Position’ blazes like the sun, an untouchable soaring pop classic, durable enough to survive any reworking, its' stirring string motif just as heart-pounding, just as joyful as ever. A hot, golden spark on an album of freezing silvers and blacks.
Winter is coming and for the most part Sundark and Riverlight is an album for the dark and the cold, to get the full effect track down the vinyl version, not for dull audiophile reasons but for the comforting pop and crackle of a much loved record on an old deck. It should be allowed to cast its spell as the evenings draw in, a record for when the snows come and the night seems to go on forever, for duvets in the dark and candles. Ten years gone and Patrick Wolf is still with us. One day the mainstream is going to claim him and he’ll lose a little something, but for now he’s still the prince of the misfits and the martyrs, the waifs and the strays, Sundark and Riverlight is him at his distilled best, tears in his eyes, glitter on his cheeks, tragic, magnificent, ours.
8Marc Burrows's Score