Within Hot Chip’s song “Shake a Fist,” there’s an interlude in which a game is suggested: “This game is called Sounds of the Studio, and it can be played with any record, including this one. You may be surprised. Now if you have a pair of headphones, you better get ‘em out and cranked up, ‘cause they’re really gonna’ help ya’.”
This is exactly how Patrick Wolf’s music should be listened to — headphones on and up while in a deep focus as you may normally dedicate to a Sunday crossword puzzle. Without careful listening, the blanket of sound that Wolf lays out on his fourth album, The Bachelor, becomes noisy and oppressive. However, applying the attention it demands, it can become a guessing game that could be called Name That Instrument, revealing moments of true inspiration.
Wolf’s style could be described as more-is-more. He has been cultivating it during each of his previous albums, and seems determined to keep pushing the envelope on the parameters of instrumentation. Bringing influences from electro, pop, Celtic, rock, classical, gospel, and probably several others I don’t even know about, Wolf uses an endless variety instruments together. It creates an exciting effect — more for the possibility for future musical creativity than the actuality of the sound of it, though.
Although it is understandable how the first two singles from the album, “Vulture” and “Hard Times,” were chosen for their closer-to-pop, drum-machine-beats viability, neither are really among the best tracks on the album. Stand-out tracks are those on which Wolf reins himself in more, creating a more intimate and emotionally accessible sound, for all of Wolf’s efforts at complicated compositions over frantic beats can tend to make the songs feel over-worked and laborious to listen to. When Wolf lets down his shield of sound, the tones of his voice (which sounds like a cross between Antony and Bowie) shine through, and his thoughtful lyrics sink deeper.
Intelligent and apparently eccentric, Wolf easily makes reference to Greek mythology, the Bible, and obscure Germany terminology while singing of themes that range from war, politics, lust, family, rejection and, of course, love. Three different types of love songs are among the most inspired of the lot. On the title track Wolf uses a fiddle, piano, what’s possibly a bodhran (see, it’s fun to guess!), and a shaker to create the music for what sounds like it could be a traditional ballad, with a conversation between two characters, which has him singing, “’Cause I know I’m not gonna marry in the fall/ And I’m not gonna marry in the spring/ I will never marry, marry at all/ No one will wear my silver ring.” Although Wolf’s love of costumes reveals him as a total romantic, and he ends up sounding like your buddy who’s “so over dating,” it’s still a cool song.
“Who Will” brings in an organ and choir to ask, “Who will/ Be the one/ To reach their hand in/ and pull out the cords and heart?” Sounds painful, but I’m pretty sure Wolf means it in a good way. The song builds slowly to a steady march, subtly dropping in more and more sounds to the mix, creating his signature layering more naturally. For much of “Blackdown” it’s just Wolf and a piano, which is also a welcome change. Again the song benefits because as he brings in different instruments carefully, while singing about familial fealty, which strikes a very real chord within a performer whose persona seems somewhat postured. I don’t mean that last comment to be insulting but if you will watch any of his music videos (try “Vulture” on for size), I think you may agree.
The Bachelor was recorded as a companion disk with The Conqueror, slated to release in 2010. While The Bachelor is not a bad listen, it takes a little more energy to understand than seems fair for what it delivers. I hope that for the next album, Wolf edits down his ambitious compositions a bit more, which would allow his creative use of different sounds to be more decipherable and enjoyable. All of the thoughtful tinkering could never replace the excitement that develops in the spaces between accident and inspiration with plain-old rocking out.