When last we caught up with Patrick Wolf, dear readers, he was extolling the peripatetic virtue of the cocaine margarita and molesting the house photographer’s beet-red neck with his, Patrick’s, pubic area. Sorry, that was the last time I myself caught up with him. Since that bingeing, mesomorphically-uneven San Francisco appearance in fall 2007 Wolf has been up to basically no good, which is kind of unsurprising given how precisely his persona halves between Paul Stanley at his most begoggled and Augusten Burroughs from “Running With Scissors”—but more movie, less book. Sex and death in the grottier skeins of LA supposedly influenced his latest record, not a certain pistachio reality series, which is obviously way darker. But Wolf is very much alive and filled with a sensualist brio without which his elaborate posh-rock wouldn’t be such a pansexual, polyreferenced hot mess—it’d be a gluttonous pain in the ass. Which is another way of saying The Bachelor has the usual excess issues, but isn’t unlistenable at all. Plus Tilda Swinton’s on it. Kind of. You’ll hear.
Wolf is intelligent enough, and has just enough classical training, to be frustrating. The Bachelor is weighty with strings that rattle and hum in the most baroque of ways and he’s clearly the sort of nonchalant savant for whom a unifying king of Athens (“Theseus”) is a sporting name to drop. (There’s also a song called “Damaris,” which I could have sworn was the woman St. Peter raised from the dead in the book of Acts, but was actually a convert of Paul during his Athens period. I hate when I get my saints and their exploits confused). Matthew Herbert and Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire join Swinton as guests so his avant-garde constituency stays pretty locked-up. He’s frustrating mostly because he doesn’t write more songs like the single “Hard Times,” a would-be gay-rights anthem that thrums with edgy programming, strings at their least baroque and a decidedly unsmarmy positivism (“time for some revolution,” “this battle will be won,” etc.) They’re the kinds of clichés addicts invoke for their hard-won clarity, not the kinds to be necessarily sneered at. “Hard Times” ends with a squelch of reverb that’s got way more life and attitude than all the operatic posturing Wolf’s hung up on elsewhere. It almost saves the album, actually. It doesn’t quite, which is…frustrating.
When he plays with the more ephemeral stuff like death-rock and bloghouse Wolf illustrates how incidental this album really is. “The Battle,” more overtly political than “Hard Times (“battle the conservative/battle the homophobe“) has unconvincingly-crashy drums and fails hard. “Count The Casualty” links boom-boom-chock percussion with enough stuttering 8-bit doodling to calcify a Crystal Castle. Wolf, because he is Wolf, ladles it on thick with a full choir and those ubiquitous strings; he’s like a mosquito that just bit Meat Loaf, sometimes. “Vulture,” the bondage-fantasia video for which is/was a minor sensation although it wouldn’t bat Dave Gahan’s eye or anything, is a glotted wreck, all distortion, high EQ and James Hetfield vocals (Am I alone on this? Another track, “The Sun Is Often Out,” is basically “Nothing Else Matters” in white-tie.)
All this is admittedly very glib, which isn’t to repudiate the rampant musicality of The Bachelor, or to say that Wolf is not a sincere, effective performer but, for instance, full of shit. The title track nearly outmaneuvers Morrissey in praise of a shambolic single life: “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.” Oh, and it’s from the perspective of a pig farmer. “Blackdown” is a historical ballad rich in piano songcraft. But these, and “Hard Times,” are The Bachelor at its best and there’s a paucity of supporting material that isn’t so far-fetched it’s kind of toxic. If it isn’t unlistenable, it’s dramatically erratic.
Video: “Hard Times”