52:50 min • Bloody Chamber Music • June 1st, 2009
The opening track of Patrick Wolf’s new album The Bachelor prefaces its following 13 tracks with the shrill cry of an air-raid siren which is as much a call to arms as it is a warning. This crescendo of sound is forged from raw noise, electronica and real instruments, which not only mimic the wail of the siren but remind us of an orchestra tuning up… It is, in effect, a prologue, which introduces the album’s core theme of conflict through a metaphor penned in sound. From the very outset, The Bachelor reveals itself as a deftly crafted, intelligent and exciting piece of work.
A production line of industrial beats replaces the siren as ‘Kriegspiel’ (war games) segues into the second track (and second single) ‘Hard Times’. The broken and staccato rhythm of the opening bars is engulfed by a wave of strings, driving the track onwards at a pace which gallops with urgency. Patrick’s rich vocals rise above this collision of the contemporary and the traditional, as he states:
Through these hard times,
I’ll work harder – harder, for…
(show me some) revolution.
This battle, will be won.
The track surges on, exceeding its initial heady pace as drums, electric guitar and choir surface in layers through the music, building to the song’s rousing climax. It’s an exhilarating start to the album that is not only sustained musically, but also thematically, in the succeeding track ‘Oblivion’. Where ‘Hard Times’ reaffirms the notion of an ‘external’ conflict, ‘Oblivion’ deals with a conflict that is internal:
Father, where’s my gun?
Now that the war, has begun,
Let me go it alone,
I need no one, said I need no one –
It is also the first of three tracks on which Tilda Swinton appears as the ‘voice of hope’. Her presence on the album not only adds a sense of continuity to the project by bringing additional cohesion to a work that is already bound tightly by its themes and its constructs; but she acts almost as the external voice of a narrator, bolstering the literary nature of Patrick’s work.
The Bachelor is Patrick’s first album to be released on his own record label Bloody Chamber Music, which is itself a literary reference to Angela Carter’s sublime collection of short stories. Patrick is a master storyteller; a troubadour exploring universal themes such as love, loneliness, loss, death, and rebirth, themes fundamental to the human condition. Like Carter, Patrick draws on and subverts the traditions of folklore, myth & fairytale through metaphor and allegory. What is truly remarkable is that he not only does this lyrically, but musically also: drawing from folk, Celtic and classical traditions and subverting those forms to his own end.
The title track ‘The Bachelor’ is one such subversion. A duet with folk singer Eliza Carthy, it is a woeful tale of a loveless and solitary bachelor. The song is rooted in English folk traditions, but a traditional duet it is not. The bachelor’s tale is a first-person narrative but is voiced by both singers, sung over a rolling drumbeat underpinned with rambling violin. The result is a startling and passionate ode to loneliness.
The album consistently navigates its colossal themes masterfully. From the melancholic lament for the suicide of a friend in ‘The Sun is Often Out’, through to the painful recognition of lost innocence in the sweeping wasteland of ‘Thickets’ and the aching plea for companionship in ‘Who Will?’, to the soaring ballad of a love denied in ‘Damaris’. Inspired by a tale of a solitary gypsy’s grave, ‘Damaris’ is an astonishing work of beauty, as richly conceived as any Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. Built on an unforgiving marching beat, overlaid with crashing strings, whilst lyrically evoking and invoking a vividly horrifying scene with the chant:
And now I kiss, I kiss the earth…
“Oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth!”
And I smash my fist, into the earth…
“Oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth!”
The album ventures into some dark places, as the best tales often do, reaching its deepest depths in ‘Count of Casualty’, ‘Vulture’ & ‘Battle’ the latter both collaborations with the brilliant Alec Empire. However, as stated in ‘Hard Times’, out of conflict must come some sort of resolution, and that recovery comes in the form of rebirth in ‘Theseus’ and ‘The Messenger’ the latter of which recognizes that the end of one journey leads to the point where a new one can begin.
Originally, this project began life as a double album simply entitled Battle, but Patrick decided in February this year to split the project into two separate albums, the second to be entitled The Conqueror which will be released next year.
The Conqueror, if it is to fulfill its eponymous promise, will have to be quite special for The Bachelor is an astonishing tour de force. With its rich production and musical & thematic layers it has a cohesion that Patrick’s previous albums might be said to lack. His ability to forge the traditional with the contemporary renders his work with a timeless quality, and The Bachelor is an album which will undoubtedly endure.
If The Bachelor were a book, it would be a thumb-worn anthology of tales bound in leather and illustrated by Arthur Rackham – something to be treasured, for it is truly an intoxicating and brilliant work of art.