Patrick Wolf

Wind in the Wires

(Tomlab; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

Patrick Wolf’s bizarre history --- a mysterious bohemian youth charted through travels in England and continental Europe, marked by mystics and strange revelations --- is the stuff of prodigy myths. The universe of his youth, in which Wolf was recording music as early as the age of 11, is the darkly desirable sort of parallel to our own, where the young don’t spend time hoop-jumping their way to the hamster wheel of adulthood. Instead, they journey through mist-filled valleys prone to invasions of spirituality and conducive to expansions of consciousness, guided by their muses. Or something like that.

If the consideration of Wolf inspires pagan prose and melodious meditations, it’s because of the hypnotic nature of his deeply haunted music. That parallel universe of youth, to which so few of us will have ever had access --- a precondition of which seems to be Wolf’s prodigy-status --- finds its artistic mirror in Wolf’s lovely chamber pop. It’s as deep and enchanted as the woods one imagines that Wolf has navigated, as stark and shadowed as the cities one feels he must have traversed in order to arrive at such a brooding, baroque, yet distinctly modern sophomore album.

It’s worth carving out a different niche for Wolf within the broadly abused term, “baroque.” Notwithstanding its pejorative connotations, its bleak associations --- also known as Muse or at a more readily identifiable level, Evanescence --- tend towards immediate turnoff for those who don’t want sensitivity beaten through their spinal columns with the guitar phallus. But Wolf’s music is of a different cast altogether; he exquisitely enmeshes the typical instruments of baroque pathos - strings, piano, heavy drums et al. --- with a unique, anxious programming sensibility to give his work a thoroughly forward looking energy. Rather than rupture the eardrum with arena-volume guitars and cheap, fizzling angst, Wolf’s Wind in the Wires creates an otherworldly atmospheric tension through apt arrangement. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Wolf’s voice is well-honed to match his ambitious sonic sweeps with a strong range.

But it’s his grasp of melody and dynamic that best defines Wind in the Wires. Nearly all of the album relies wisely upon melody, but builds upon it with smart choices in dynamic --- the best example likely being its title track, which steadily builds into string-led ascendance on a sterling, mournful melody, all the while reinforcing its titular theme with swooshing programming. Its inclusion and rearrangement of its structural elements doesn’t aspire towards great complexity, but definitively adds evolving character to a song whose pace might be otherwise uneventful.

Nor is Wolf’s compositional strategy static or burdensome; “Railway House” relies on sparse, ethereal instrumentation and a greater focus on Wolf’s voice to carry its weight, before moving into an even different set of foci on “Gypsy King,” a wonderfully delicate crystallization of Wolf’s wandering mysticism. “Tristan” veers lustily into melodically accomplished industrial-hungry directions, and “Eulogy” makes its way on a precarious, wispy sea made almost solely of weeping string waves.

What’s often so pleasing about Wolf’s work, and what elevates it beyond already strong acts like the Decemberists, is the complete lack of self-consciousness involved in both his storytelling and songwriting. If Picaresque or Her Majesty strike one as making an overt, self-betraying effort to be unique, with anachronistic talks of duchesses, chimney sweeps and winking, eclectic vocabulary, Wind in the Wires is a more authentic alternative. Wolf doesn’t waste words on tales that exclude any possibility of identification from his listeners. Each narrative of yearning, angst, and misdirection --- though perhaps taking place in some twisted, grimy other-London town - is direct with its striking lyrical imagery. And rather than fetishize sea-shanty theremin and other palpably theatrical instrumentation, Wolf makes his mark with the kind of programming touches that invites the listener into his netherworld with their emphatically modern character.

Which is not to say that Wind in the Wires isn’t a bit heavy at times, or that it isn’t theatrical. But its theatricality is a fully organic bloom from its compositionally deep and dark thicket. The coherence of Wolf’s ethic assures the consistency and believability of his cryptic, erotic, and eerie world. And the opportunity to explore it should be enthusiastically embraced by any listener with a craving for gently twisted, wrought-iron pop.