Patrick Wolf’s sophomore album, Wind in the Wires, began with haunting and haunted single “The Libertine,” a spooky, stunning, and somewhat danceable noir tale of horses, death and escape, setting a dark and disturbing mood for the rest of the Irish troubadour’s songs to follow. On “Overture,” the opener on third album, The Magic Position, it seems there has been a rather drastic shift in Wolf’s M.O. The first line out of Wolf’s mouth is “it’s wonderful what a smile can hide,” a far cry from “the circus girl fell off her horse, and now she’s paralyzed.” It only takes a minute or so to realize that the grim and angst-ridden narratives of Wind in the Wires are but a thing of the past, and in their place is pure joy.
The musical elements that characterized Wind in the Wires are still ever-present—electronic beats, violin, Wolf’s emotional, expressive voice. Yet the way each of these elements is configured on The Magic Position yields something almost completely different than Wolf’s past creations. It’s a brighter album, one with big arrangements, handclaps, soaring climaxes and huge choruses. Most tellingly, the title track finds Wolf proclaiming “I’m singing in the major key.” And that major key is everywhere, painting the album with a vivid and joyous hue, making for a perfect set of springtime anthems and love bitten mixtape singles.
“Overture,” the title track and “Accident & Emergency” form a powerful opening trio, each song bursting with energy and unleashing a wave of positive energy absent from Wolf’s prior, darker releases. “Overture” is a fitting title for the opening track, its epic melody and deeply thudding drums sounding downright heroic, not to mention catchy. “The Magic Position,” meanwhile, layers ringing bells, horns and that trademark violin in a soulful Motown stomp, Wolf confessing the romantic refrain, “it’s you who puts me in the magic position, darling.” “Accident” builds on more of an electronic sound, noisy samples swirling in a fun, danceable tornado, in which Wolf celebrates life through its harsher realities (“what happens when you lose everything? You just carry on with a grin“).
In spite of such a vibrant and gleaming opening trio of songs, The Magic Position is not exclusively major key pop anthems. At the center of the album, Wolf descends into slower, more somber balladry in “Bluebell” and “Magpie,” the latter featuring guest vocals by Marianne Faithfull. In “Augustine,” Wolf puts a more tragic and defeating spin on a love story, elegantly and beautifully crying, “why does love leave me so damn cold, and I’m getting old.” Here, he sounds remarkably like Antony Hegarty, proving his worth as a graceful balladeer as much as an eccentric, electronics loving singer-songwriter. Yet in “Bluebells,” Wolf marries the two sides, a steady, grinding beat plodding beneath a dramatic, minor key blanket of piano and buzzing electronic bass, finding a happy medium between his musical Jekyll and Hyde.
The final third of the album finds Patrick Wolf returning to his dazzling, upbeat songcraft in “(Let’s Go) Get Lost.” Horns dance side by side with quirky, video game electronics, escalating into a lighthearted, yet sonically dense anthem, its mighty chorus proclaiming “come get lost with me, till we run on empty.” The brief “Enchanted” twinkles and twirls just before the hyperactive, Björk-like “The Stars” shimmers like its astronomical inspiration. While much of the album finds Wolf declaring his discovery of love and happiness, here he gazes with childlike wonder, yet finds a grown-up wisdom in his starry-eyed awe, the swelling piano and strings creating a teary climax to an already emotionally heavy album.
It’s hard not to use the word “maturity” when speaking of The Magic Position, as it’s easily the most sophisticated album Patrick Wolf has recorded to date. A lot has changed since the young Irishman stepped onto the scene with Lycanthropy. He’s still the twenty-something, bright red-haired eccentric, his tall and lanky frame draped in flamboyant garments. Yet beneath his flashy exterior is the heart of an artist, wise and accomplished beyond his years.
Björk – Post
Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
PJ Harvey – Is This Desire?
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.