In terms of ambition, inventiveness and reinvention, Patrick Wolf stands comparison with popstars of far greater status and longevity. His shapeshifting has taken him from Boweryite Peter Pan to windswept Sleepy Hollow extra to glitterball-eyed scene queen in the space of three albums. His fourth is not only the first instalment of a putative concept double-album, but also, after his parting with Universal Records, financed mostly by selling £10 shares in the album to his ever-loyal fans. However shaky its foundations, though, The Bachelor radiates his usual unassailable assurance and self-belief.
Wolf’s chameleonic drive is facilitated by an astonishingly secure and switched-on sense of self. Many of his lyrics are concerned with triumph over adversity, taking threat, hardship and hostility head-on, and his relishing of a challenge is a thread on which much of this album hangs. Forthcoming single ‘Hard Times’ is a choppy, spirited call to arms and a uniquely ballsy response to current conditions – ‘give me hard times and I’ll work harder’ – stepping up to the Cult of Recession and looking it in the eye rather than revelling in schadenfreude or sagging in defeat. The song’s heart-racing final lines (‘If they only see you with their fear and they only hear you with their pride, then work harder’) could, handled less skilfully, smack of a reactionary shifting of blame from the oppressive society to the misfit individual. It escapes this through a sense of impending triumph for the protagonist and a quiet determination to prove detractors wrong, and raises an elegant two fingers to contemporary culture’s immersion in fatalism and victim-chic.
Exhortations to empowerment and self-actualisation have marked Wolf’s lyrics as far back as his first album’s ‘it’s all in the palm of your hand’. The Bachelor is studded with similar thoughts. ‘Oblivion’ explores the age-old concept of overcoming your fears by facing them. ‘Blackdown’s explosion into joyous cyber-madrigal* at the line ‘Desire: you are not the maker of me’ does more than any self-help mantra to push the idea of self-control over self-indulgence. The title track displays a similar gleeful defiance in resisting external definition, its narrator forsaking domestic necessity to blithely romance ‘all the boys in the valley’, turning the declaration ‘I will never marry’ into a positive and proactive choice rather than a fate to which one is condemned. (*Yes, ‘cyber-madrigal’ is an awful term. I’m trying to avoid the term ‘electro-folk’.)
Wolf’s frustration with the barren popular culture he previously nailed as ‘a drought of truth and invention’ is still apparent, while he also raises his sights to higher problems of state. ‘Hard Times’ laments ‘mediocrity applauded’, wilful ignorance and the drive to war, while ‘Count of Casualty’ dares you to ‘log off, sign out, delete your friends’ and take the fight to the streets. ‘Battle’, the album’s most explicitly political song, weighs in with more certainty of long-awaited victory for Patrick’s lamé army, and finds its mark in targets – ‘conservatives’, ‘homophobes’ and, curiously, anti-Europeans – which might be soft but still need taking down.
On the string-soaked ‘The Sun is Often Out’, Wolf remains a superb chronicler of London as a site of mourning and morbidity – the dark side of Peter Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. On most of the album, however, the twilit city skylines and decaying coastal towns which dotted his earlier work give way to ‘green pastures’, echoing hills and valleys and desolate moorland, with the Sussex downs both directly referenced and indirectly evoked. It’s a setting appropriate to the mythic tropes, fairytale narratives, quests and manifest destinies which crowd this album, stories told in soaring, strident vocals, backed by mass choruses and cleanly slicing strings.
And then there’s ‘Vulture’. Oh, Patrick. Let’s leave aside the way that the line ‘LA big wheels turn’ perfectly encapsulates Hollywood as both industry and entertainment, and focus on this song as exemplary of the way that being a Wolf fan involves something akin to a leap of faith, suspending your disbelief in the pursuit of enjoyment in absurdity. This tale of a smalltown boy’s big-city debauching is a triumph of outrageous cliché, Wolf’s supreme self-confidence displayed as much in his ability to pull off a line like ‘Down in Santa Monica suicide motel / One date with the Devil and seven days in Hell’ as anything else in his past career. If you’re going to dress as a vulture-themed dominatrix and sing about being put in the magic position, you’d better have the courage of your convictions and front like ridicule is nothing to be scared of. ‘Vulture’ does just that, vocals yelped and heavy-breathed over a backdrop evocative of clattering typewriter keys, blades being sharpened, and, if you listen very carefully underneath the throbbing synth, the sound of Erotica-era Madonna and You Are The Quarry-era Moz, as well as every amateur ever to play with the concept of Hollywood or BDSM, quietly expiring of sizzling envy.