I discovered Patrick Wolf in much the same way as I discovered Seth Lakeman. It was a nice quiet night and I was watching television. It was BBC2 and Newsnight Review was on. At the end of the programme, Kirsty Walsh introduced us to a musician I have never heard of. His name is Partrick Wolf and he had a new album coming out soon which was called The Magic Position and was going to play the title track to play the programme out.
Intrigued, I watched on. Then, I saw a rather dashing young man, in clothes which I would classify as ‘dandy’, sitting in front of the piano with two violinists behind him. Then, the music started and what happened next was a feast for the ears.
Unlike Seth Lakeman, I bought his album much later, but it was worth the wait. Mr Wolf, after I have done some Wikipediaing, I found out was a multi-instrumentalist. He can play harp, clavinet, harpsichord, guitar, piano, autoharp, kantele, organ, mountain dulcimer, clavichord, harmonium, accordion, theremin, ukulele, viola and violin. But of course, even if one can play a pantheon of instruments does not indicate one is musicially superior. There are technicalities and spirituality involved that makes one’s music great and good. And listening to Mr Wolf’s album suggest that he is indeed great.
But Mr Wolf is no classically trained musician. He did do a year at Trinity College of Music but that’s all. However, his music is not without foundation and he clearly has an experimental mind. Valuing the music and the instruments our ancestors gave us, he utilises them in an unconventional method. The results are not as chaotic or crass as expected. It is neither removed of modernity or a spit at the past. One can clearly see and hear a process of creation and feel that he has put a great deal of thought and pondering into his works. Indeed, his ideals are summed up by his sentiments towards ‘manufactured pop’. He recently criticised the singer Mika, albeit in a not so discreet way, that he is a ‘twat’. He further reiterated saying, “what I meant was: Please let’s put an end to over-marketed, expensive, heartless, tacky rubbish, autotune, airbrush… I demand justice for good music and firebrands who refiuse [sic] to compromise to be popular.” It is evident that he values a more ‘pure’ form of music than that of mass produced for the masses. This sort of sentiment, IMHO, is similar to that of my views on qin music and how it should remain pure but develop into something that it is capable of, what its strengths are and not into something it is clearly not.
A great deal must be discussed about his experiemntation. He once “earned money from busking in a string quartet and also formed a group called Maison Crimineaux, a noisy trio built on destructive ethics around white noise and pop music.” This refusal to conform to established music was not only the experience that will give him his later independance in producing his own music on his own terms but also it will give him more intutition into the best ways to utilise synthetic musics in the most appropriate and pleasing manner without sounding gimmicky or old-fashioned.
His style of music is similar to his dress sense which is flamboyant. I mentioned dandyism and his style is likened to that of David Bowie. But you’d be forgiven to make such a comparison as he does have the hallmarks. However, it would be unuseful to give such a label to him as he is far from David Bowie.
Given all the complexities and maybe overwhelming mish-mash of content and texture to his music, Mr Wolf’s melodies a far from boring or uneasy to listen to. In fact, it is very pleasing. You are transported to different places such as woodlands and quiet houses. Everything is harmonious and well structured and it is like a symphony in itself. And this album just illustrates this finely. Every piece blends into each other and you don’t know when which piece ends and when which piece starts. Before you know it, you’ve reached the end and is now gagging for more. One can look at the sleeve lyrics to understand that it is meant to be a countinuous stream of music.
He opens his album with Overture which is like a look back at the past and how he analyses the beginnings of creation. He sings ‘was it worth all that war just to win?’ and askes to be taken back to where it begins if it isn’t. It is to re-look at why we do all this stuff for something so mundane when we should just smile and do it because we want to. This opening is basically telling us to open our eyes and to take in what is to come without pre-judgement.
We then move on to the title track of The Magic Position which is a celebration of the one soul-mate, friend or mentor that sparks a moment of creativity and guides you to ultimate enlightenment. “Out of all the people I’ve known… Now that the dreams are all coming true, who is the one that leads me on through? It’s you.” This piece is like a thank you to all his friends and those who put him into a ‘Magic Position.’ The position to celebrate his own music with others. The music utilises several instruments such as the bass clarinent and the notable violins. It is a very uplifting melody.
Accident & Emergency is musically different from the two previous ones. He now uses a vibraphone and sythesizers in a manner that does not sound cliché or out of balance. It is a statement about willing to fight and that whatever comes your way, you must face it in order to learn and continue living. “If you never lose, how you going to know when you’ve won?” One should use their defeats and turn them into triumphs and these bring out the best in you.
The next two tracks are interesting. The Bluebell and Bluebells could be considered as one track since they blend into each other. These two melodies are set on Bonfire Night and seems to be a personal lament at someone Mr Wolf has lost (maybe in a metaphoric way, I do not know). It is very dark in tone. “You were my husband, my wife, my heroine. Now this is our final December.” The melody is puncuated with sounds of fireworks exploding which adds to the disturbing feeling of this piece.
Magpie is a ballard about being lost and meeting someone who leads us back. In this song, we are like a little boy who has a wedding ring stolen by a magpie who chases it and gets lost in the woods where he meets a Romani woman. In the middle of the song, we hear Marianne Faithfull singing as the woman with Mr Wolf. We get the sense of meditation and comforting.
X starts with formula of a language I couldn’t identify. It is very short, only about a miunte or so long but seems to be a continuance of Magpie. There are around 25 lines of lyrics which are not used for reasons unknown to me but they basically say how the boy returns to a devastated situation. “She is calling him home as she lies deathly on the bathroom floor… waiting, waiting, waiting for him.”
The next melody entitled Augustine is a lament that continues on from the scenario in Magpie and X. The girl now lies dead while the boy holds her in his arms. “As I hold you to my bed, like a cancer or a curse.” Although the content is about death, the melody is not a dark one. In fact, it is like a peaceful mourning. However, it is also about parting from someone we love and the processes involved.
The Secret Garden gets darker in tone and is like X in that it has lyrics that are written but not sung. I have no clue as to the purpose of this or what Mt Wolf’s intentions are. From the lyrics, it is about escaping with a lover into a place where they will live without danger.
Get Lost changes the tone of the album and is musically uplifting. Again there is a chunk of the lyrics not used, but there is enough for a full song. The song is about carefree living and visiting different places (very Daoist in that sense); “come, get lost with me, slip away, discreetly. If you’re my love then come, run away with me…”
Enchanted has a very jazzy tone to it. It is connected to Get Lost as it like when you’ve reached the country and lying on the grass and you are enchanted by your lover. It is a very sweet and relaxed melody savouring the notes and it feels like you are lying in the sun. This also has a few lines of lyrics unused.
The Stars also has a huge chunk of lyrics not used. It is a meditation about life and death and the beauty of nature. This feels like being in awe at the stars and how you follow them home, returning to your beginnings.
The whole album ends in the Finale which is a crescendo of pure music that brings the whole story to a close. This creates a sense of closure and is a gentle and elegant way of finishing the album.
Since Mr Wolf also writes poetry, I have a feeling the unused lyrics are like a record of his thought processes and he wishes to keep them in in order for the reader to understand more about the background and sense of the pieces he has written. It makes him a rather unconventional in his approach.
His album is recommended by me.