In a letter posted on his website, singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf explained his rationale for releasing Sundark and Riverlight, on which he’s recorded new, acoustic-based versions of songs spanning his decade-long career. Wolf claims that the project was a way “to document what these songs have grown up to be while I’ve been traveling them around the world.” Certainly, Wolf’s five studio albums have provided him with no shortage of exemplary material to choose from, but it’s that “grown up” signifier that points to the reasons why the album neither works on its own merits nor captures what’s made Wolf one of today’s most compelling musical talents. Sundark and Riverlight takes one of the most captivating, progressive catalogues in contemporary pop and makes it sound like a Picnic with the Pops concert.
The anthology is bifurcated into “Riverlight,” a set of upbeat songs that focus on relationships, and “Sundark,” which is filled with Wolf’s moodier material. Wolf’s studio albums have proven his skill with broader themes and structures, but the division here seems more arbitrary, undermined by the fact that the arrangements on both halves of the album rarely reflect a shift in tone. There’s little difference between the weeping string section on “Teignmouth” and the delicate, nearly a cappella approach to “London,” or between the vaguely ominous cello on “The Libertine” and the somber arrangement on “Wind in the Wires.” While the different perspectives of the two sets may be explicitly reflected in Wolf’s lyrics, the homogeneity of the production choices makes the double album seem even longer than it is.
What’s surprising is the extent to which Wolf’s production is rarely in service to his songs. His ability to use his classical training and sophisticated, thoughtful compositions to heighten the sense of drama in his narratives has always made his work distinctive, but that’s not the case here. He turns “Vulture” into a funereal dirge that strips the song of its self-loathing streak, and the lite calypso wash on “House” aims for intimacy, but ends up being maudlin. The Spanish-style guitar work that drives “Together” seems to have inspired Wolf to affect a campy, theatrical vocal cadence that’s at odds with the song’s message, while the orchestral flourishes on “Hard Times” are too polished and refined to reflect any of the political discord that inspired the song.
It’s not the songs themselves that are the issue; the original studio versions, a balance of Wolf’s best-known singles with some of his finest album tracks, would make for a fine career retrospective. But the disconnect between the quality of the songs and the overly polite, conservative arrangements, which sound like Sausalito, the lite-jazz band from Lost in Translation, does a disservice to Wolf’s material. This isn’t just a pointless re-recording like Tori Amos’s recent Gold Dust, on which the new orchestral arrangements were too similar to her original versions; Wolf seems to have made a deliberate, conscious decision to make his songs sound dull.