You can’t always take Patrick Wolf at his word. Two years ago, he wailed on the title track to his darkest, noisiest album to date, “I’m not going to marry in the fall/I’m not going to marry in the spring/I will never marry, marry at all.” But as a matter of fact, he’s been sporting an engagement ring since New Year’s, and his latest album, Lupercalia, exists mostly to tell you how goddamned giddy he is about that fact. Moreover, Wolf initially promised that he’d follow The Bachelor with a more optimistic record called The Conqueror, but the singer tweeted last August that he’d scrapped the concept altogether, having “grown up alot [sic] from all that battle aggression.” All of this was, to put it mildly, out of character. Usually, when a British electro-pop artist goes through a blue period, he or she cuts a record influenced by the Cure and moves on; for Wolf, pouting is just par for the course and a “dark” record means a Wagnerian wallow in the type of anxious, unappeasable id that would give Hieronymus Bosch the willies. Hard as it may be to imagine the singer sinking in to a life of domestic bliss, Lupercalia testifies to Wolf’s affection for his partner with startling sincerity, and as pop portraits of young men in love go, this one is nearly definitive.
Wolf’s emotional turnaround is duly reflected in Lupercalia‘s sonic motifs, which are cribbed largely from Motown, disco, and chamber pop. And while that set of influences isn’t particularly novel, it provides a perfect point of transition from Wolf’s early work, which also centered around strings, pianos, and dynamic electronic beats, essentially allowing him to construct a lightweight pop analogue to his moodier, more baroque compositions. Having figured out how to write big, ebullient pop songs that incorporate his strengths as a songwriter, Wolf is free to bash out major-key anthems like “The Future” and “House” like he’s never had a bad day in his life. To my ears, there’s little fault to be found with Lupercalia‘s opening run, though just as some people find the sight of an affectionate couple almost intolerable, the un-self-consciously love-drunk Wolf on parade here could leave more cynical listeners with a bad case of pop fatigue. It’s an unfortunate bias of rock critics that we often applaud as uncompromising those albums that are mercilessly bleak while insisting that artists who want to sing about their good fortune hold the audience at arm’s length. But expressing devotion requires just as much courage and compositional wit as expressing despair—maybe more.
Wolf’s vocals, for example, have never sounded better, and if he didn’t exude conviction on every track, there’s little question that the album would’ve come off as frivolous and artificial. There’s only one way to deliver a verse like “Love knows no boundaries/Sees beyond sexuality/Holds the sun in the palm of its hand/And laughs down at the cynical man,” and that’s by blowing it out like all hope for love depended on it. “Together,” a rococo-meets-disco number that rounds out the album’s powerhouse third act, is a splendid showcase for Wolf’s expressive pipes, though the glitchy “Slow Motion” might be an even better one, with Wolf nailing a few glorious high notes in the song’s finale. In attempting to sell his cheery new disposition, Wolf has also ended up making his most cohesive and thematically unified album since Wind in the Wires. Where The Bachelor sometimes played like an awkward amalgam of works by Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, and David Bowie, Lupercalia commits to realizing its sound with relatively few digressions.
Oddly enough, it’s the handful of melancholy tunes that come in the middle stretch of the album that end up being weak links. “Armistice” and “The Days” aren’t bad songs per se, but they don’t rival the best tracks from past Wolf albums: “Magpie,” “Bluebells,” or “Augustine,” the trio of somber songs from Wolf’s relatively upbeat The Magic Position do the same work without sounding nearly so generic. Wolf’s decision to spotlight those leaden ballads while leaving the far more interesting “William” a mere interlude does terrible things to Lupercalia‘s momentum, though the excellent midtempo “Time of My Life” saves the album’s middle third from total irrelevance. It’s in Wolf’s nature to write songs that sail over the top and then some, but his drama-kid outbursts are harder to forgive when he trades his infectious good mood for stock self-pity, particularly when his heart is so obviously not in the material.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the combination of pop smarts and high spirits can finally win Wolf the mainstream audience that his handlers have so clearly been coveting. Lupercalia is his second chance to succeed on a major label, and much of the discussion of the album in the British press has centered around its commercial prospects. In a perfect world, great pop songs would always end up on the top of the charts, and I get the impression that the common-sense distinction between commercial and critical success observed by most American critics isn’t accepted so readily across the Atlantic, where important British artists are supposed to move big numbers too. The fact that Wolf stands little chance of displacing Rihanna or Adele shouldn’t preempt our appreciation of what he’s accomplished with this album, which is to shake off his unseemly solipsism and turn out his most catchy and engaging batch of songs in one concise effort. RIAA be damned, Lupercalia is a golden record if ever I’ve heard one.