27:10 min • Mercury Records • December 4, 2011
The most famous woman in the world once said she writes her best songs when she’s sad, for “who wants to note their happiness?” I’m starting to think this is true of most artists. Not that I’m saying that it’s impossible to write a good song about being happy but, rather, that the most interesting work is often borne from sadness. This would seems to be the case for Patrick Wolf, as the stand out moments on his new EP Brumalia come from a dark place. And he sounds all the better for it.
Patrick’s last album was released in two parts – the first part, The Bachelor, saw him working with German digital hardcore god Alec Empire and alternative film goddess Tilda Swinton. It’s the perfect soundtrack to life as a mid-twenties singleton in an unfeeling city. The follow up Lupercalia (sharing its name with the pre-Roman form of Valentines Day) is a straight narrative on love conquering adversity. And the lyric from the single ‘The City’, “won’t let the city destroy our love”, revealed that Patrick feels the same way about London as the rest of us.
With Brumalia, Patrick Wolf is exploring winter and he does this by visiting the dark side of love. Somewhere between his last two albums there is a story of the vampiric nature of love, and this EP is the story of that love. It comes from the period between the darkness of autumnal solitude and the blaze of summer love. Patrick gives us his Brumalia, his offering to the God of Wine whom the festival honours, his letter to love. After being so happily in love on Lupercalia, what does he have to say about its dark side?The opener ‘Bitten’, which is far more Bram Stoker than Stephenie Meyers, takes us to that dark place instantly. Gothic strings with undertones of industrial drums (and is that a saw I hear?) points to where this is all going – indeed, the lyric “now you must love yourself like you’ve never known hurt before” feels like it sums up the whole thing, and serves as the perfect introduction to what follows. ‘Bitten’ is about addiction in all its forms, and is the prologue to the sonic novel that follows.
Chapter One is ‘Together’, previously included on Patrick’s last album Lupercalia, where its darker hues went almost unnoticed. Yet somehow the driving Berlin techno beat, courtesy of Alec Empire, feels a much more sinister affair in the context of these songs than it did dripping in the loved up gloss of Lupercalia. The lyric “I’m sorry I hurt you, I hurt me too” now stands out, and the desperation in the song makes itself known.
Chapter Two hits a stumbling block. The Christmas track ‘Time Of Year’, which is all horns and tambourines, feels somewhat out of place in this dark, brooding collection of songs, despite being one of the best pop songs Patrick has ever written. However, just as quickly as it envelops with Christmas joy, it is discarded again in the form of a bare acoustic version of Jerusalem. It’s keeping the winter/Christmas theme, but doesn’t feel out of place. Patrick manages to make it sound melancholic (despite it now being mostly associated with Jam making and lavender bath salts), taking it back to its William Blake roots and away from the W.I.
And then there is the twist in the tale with the electronic stumble of ‘Nemoralia’. Patrick brings out his big digital hardcore guns, and what follows is several minutes of industrial ballad heaven, accumulating in an X-Ray Specs inspired saxophone that makes the whole thing sound like Gaga’s ‘Edge Of Glory’ put through a blender. And that’s a good thing!
I’ll admit this is the side of Patrick’s music that moves me the most: an ability to make jarring electronica that makes me feel warm and fuzzy rather than cold and alienated. ‘Nemoralia’, sharing its name with the Pagan “Festival Of Torches”, uses the London riots as its base (there are even a few sonic samples of the riots to be heard in there too). It harks back to his debut album Lycanthropy, and this process continues with ‘Pelicans’, a beautiful electronic ballad with stuttering drums and fragmented horns. Written on his iPad by a swamp in America, this is one of the most beautiful moments of the EP, transporting the listener to a moment of quiet in the ferocious jumble of the city. ‘Nemoralia’ and ‘Pelicans’ fit together almost like one track, progressing through frantic madness to delicious calm, in preparation for the epilogue.
The EP ends with possibly his most beautiful and personal song to date ‘Trust’. It’s a stunning track that reveals a belief that love and trust can conquer any of the dark we have been subjected to. It manages to say this without any saccharin, and in the most honest way explains love in a city torn apart by lust – lust for money, lust for possessions, lust for each other. Patrick himself has said he was always afraid of sharing this track with anyone – possibly a fear that he was sharing too much? It ends the album perfectly, a muted ray of light through the grey clouds of the city in winter.
Winter can mean so many things, from sadness to isolation, from grey clouds to white snow, and this EP showcases each aspect of the season perfectly. From the beautifully shot Patti Smith cover, to the acoustics and strings, and through to the crunchy electronica, winter imbues Brumalia from start to finish. Indeed, if there is anything wrong with Brumalia, it’s that it’s too short. I could listen to ‘Nemoralia’ on repeat, and with every listen to this EP I’m left wanting more… and since it’s named after the shortest day, maybe that’s the point.