Being a critic can spoil the music listening experience. It’s why I rarely interview artists. Ignorance, or simply distance, is often required for any illusion to exist, and illusions (usually false ones) are what make us capable of propping up both public figures and personal icons. My Q&A with Patrick Wolf following the release of his sophomore effort, Wind In The Wires, didn’t exactly cause any pedestals to teeter, but reading his posts on MySpace—melodramatic, capricious, and just a little self-involved (which, often, is what an artist needs to be)—is enough to make the old-fashioned record-store-browsing consumer in me wish away the Internet completely.
The liner notes to the wolfman’s new album, The Magic Position, aren’t a whole lot better, but, as David Bowie, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos taught us, genius often comes wrapped up in a little indulgent kook. Those and other artists also taught us that evolving is essential to personal, professional, and creative survival, and The Magic Position is a decisive move away from both the avant-garde indie-rock of Wolf’s debut and the slightly more accessible but still dour Wind In The Wires. In fact, right down to its cover art and title, The Magic Position is a blistering, unabashedly gay pop record. (And, of course, I mean “gay” in both its earliest etymological form as well as its more contemporary meaning.)
The first words on the album, “It’s wonderful what a smile can hide,” might sound cynical, but Wolf goes on to ask “Don’t you think it’s time?” with all the wide-eyed optimism of someone ready to embark on life for the very first time. The song, “Overture,” sets the tone for the title track, a giddy, foot-stomping, hand-clapping pop nugget that falls in line with the ‘60s pop revisionism that seems to be all the rage over on the other side of the puddle these days. “I’m singing in the major key at long last!” he exclaims. And he means it quite literally. “The Magic Position” and “Get Lost” are brimming with pop hooks, made all the more brassy by the juxtaposition of Wolf’s deep, folky baritone. “Accident & Emergency,” which pairs trombones and stuttering electronic beats with ambulance sirens and children’s laughter, turns a terrorist attack into a source of inspiration, and, by album’s end, even death is smiled upon (or up at).
That’s not to say The Magic Position is all grinning and singing gaily. The album’s middle stretch implies a spoiled love affair, further expounded by lyrics for songs that were curiously cut from the album but will likely show up in live performances and as b-sides. “Magpie,” a dramatic duet on which Marianne Faithfull swoops in like a fairy godmother and imparts comfort and wisdom for Wolf’s despair, the ukulele ballad “Augustine,” and the lovely, joyous “Enchanted” further prove the singer-songwriter is more than just a wolf in sheep’s clothing: unlike some other artists, personal tragedy isn’t a prerequisite to creating truly revealing, raw, and utterly captivating music. The Magic Position is a euphoric listening experience not even being a critic can spoil.