REVIEW: Patrick Wolf – Sun☽ark and RiverlightPosted: October 16, 2012
It has been ten years since Patrick Wolf first forayed into being a recording artist. His debut LP, Lycanthropy, garnered him an abundance of well-deserved acclaim and intrigue, and in the time since then he has only grown as an artist and become more accomplished. His five full-lengths have all treaded different territory thematically, for better or for worse. From the lost, moody atmosphere of Wind in the Wires to the loved up, joy-filled sounds of Lupercalia, Patrick Wolf has always created within a broad spectrum. With such a diverse discography, it seems like the perfect time to take a breather and catch up on his accomplishments thus far.
The result of this milestone is Sundark and Riverlight, a greatest hits, of sorts – but not in the traditional sense. All of the songs on the double-album have been re-recorded and altered, composed primarily with violins, piano and guitars, as opposed to Wolf’s usual penchant for the more unusual instrumentation. Instead of just making this a “greatest hits”, he has instead chosen tracks carefully that are either fan favourites, personal favourites or tracks that he felt could benefit from being changed in this way.
Usually when artists release double albums, they end up being a little too much to get to grips with, but Wolf has made sure it doesn’t happen with this collection. Each of the discs are a mere eight tracks long, culminating in a running time of just over an hour. The way the tracks were chosen has helped avoid the age-old dilemma of double LPs having too much filler, instead we’re left with example after example of why Patrick Wolf is as well respected as he is as a songwriter.
With Sundark and Riverlight there’s a hard decision to make when reviewing it of whether to treat the tracks as unique songs in their own right, or to make constant references back to the originals. As a fan of Wolf for a very long time now, I have grown attached to a lot of the tracks throughout his recording career, so a natural “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude hazed me slightly, apologies. But even a complete novice to the work of Patrick Wolf would be able to see the merit of his work, if this is any indication.
Seeing Wolf’s usual grandeur and melodrama substituted for more subtle arrangements is a rare thing to see on record, and reveals a welcome vulnerability to the music that is less apparent on his usual releases. Detrimentally, it does make give all of the tracks on here a similar vibe, instrumentally speaking. Because of the timeframe that the tracks were initially composed, they came at very different times in Patrick Wolf’s life, but he manages to tie them all together and make them all feel like they belong together. They all have a well-orchestrated studio sheen, which earlier tracks in Wolf’s discography lacked, and it helps put the focus much more on the tales and imagery springing forth from his lyrics. Patrick Wolf’s voice is on full, unfiltered display here, and it flourishes nicely, displaying genuine passion throughout, along with great range. Aside from some peculiar vocal samples on Bermondsey Street, Wolf’s voice is the only one you’ll hear on this album. Tilda Swinton doesn’t even reprise her role as the narrator on Oblivion, but it gives off a very isolated feeling throughout. The main downside to this is of course that if you were a fan of the more glitchy, experimental side of Patrick Wolf, you’ll be sadden by the complete lack of a presence on this record.
The Big Ben piano chimes of ‘London’ find Patrick Wolf at his absolute best. A solemn tale of feeling lost in the big city, the words flow so perfectly. This re-recording lacks some of the emotional punch of the original version from his debut, and the added lyrics at the end soften the otherwise very climatic part of the original. That might just be a side-effect of becoming too attached to the original, if listened to with a fresh pair of ears.
The track that is improved the most through these re-workings is unanimously ‘Vulture’, a song that originally sounded to me at times like a scrapped idea for a Mighty Boosh number. The version recorded here is a more brooding, piano-saturated ballad. Gone are the goofy electric guitars, or the off-kilter vocal strains, replaced with melancholic longing and sparse instrumentation.
‘Bluebells’ is another song that benefits greatly from the more traditional recording. The passion in Wolf’s voice is apparent, and it’s beautifully recorded on this compilation. The firework sound effects and electronic beat from the original are instead replaced with lavish piano and violin arrangements. Vivid imagery looms around every second of the song; “Lucy, remember, the smell of that fall; the fires, the fungus and the rotting leaves”, the subtle details included make it an even more heartbreaking song than it was originally.
If you’re a complete novice when it comes to Patrick Wolf’s music, Sundark and Riverlight provides a pretty good jumping off point for getting to grips with his music. It lacks some of the more immediate pop hits, such as Get Lost, Tristan or Accident and Emergency, but for already-converted listeners, there’s a treasure trove of unique re-workings of the work that made you such a fan of Patrick Wolf in the first place. The inclusion of often overshadowed tracks like Wolf Song, Teignmouth and Bitten are a welcome addition amongst the more obvious choices.
If Wolf has never managed to grab your attention in the past, this collection will do little to sway your decision, but if you’ve been oblivious to his work prior to this, Sundark and Riverlight serves as a great way to celebrate ten years in the industry – here’s to the next ten.