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Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position

Patrick Wolf is a lanky 23-year-old Brit songwriter with a shock of bright red hair and bizarre taste in trousers. He’s cut a fairly singular figure in his career thus far: His 2003 debut, Lycanthropy, was an erratic affair laden with jagged electronics, howled vocals and tales of rape and self-mutilation, while 2005’s Wind in the Wires largely traded noise for softly strummed ukuleles and a sort of wistful, it-was-better-in-the-old-days pastoralism.

Interestingly, now that his compositional chops and idiosyncratic worldview have earned him Kate Bush comparisons and the adoration of the U.K. critical establishment, he’s taken the potentially disastrous step of cheering up a bit and embracing his inner pop star. It’s not that there wasn’t a certain sense of wide-eyed wonder underpinning his earlier work, but never before has he been so unequivocally upbeat. The Magic Position finds Wolf in love, and apparently in a far more relaxed and confident mood as a result.

While the sonic palette is a mixture of the twitchy electronics and traditional instrumentation he’s relied on in the past, Wolf’s newfound lust for life infuses much of this album with a different mood from his prior efforts — his vocals sound more assured and playful, stretching and rolling syllables and seeming to pick and choose between London and Northern Irish pronunciations at will. At some length, he extols the virtues of seeing the brighter side of life and being prepared to open up and “let someone in,” with the title track (a cutesy ramshackle electropop single) in particular ramming home its “get ready for major chords!” conceit. Listening to the album begins to feel like being repeatedly hit over the head with a foam hammer with the words “Everything Is Okay” written on it in neon letters. In the right mood, this is not an entirely disagreeable sensation.

That’s not the full story, though. Just as you begin to develop a nagging fear that Pat’s relentless new chirpiness could become a touch monotonous, normal service resumes. “Bluebells” follows a dejected piano intro, and though it soon sounds like it’s reverting to lovable whimsy, it actually swerves, springing an ambush of ominous synth-bass and megabrooding piano chords. Timed as it is, it’s a weirdly exhilarating shift in mood, reaching a peak just after Wolf’s final half-despairing, half-triumphant cry of “wake me up when the bluebells are ringing.” Similar creepy quasi-euphoria is evident on “Magpie,” as Marianne Faithfull lends a hand to recite nursery rhymes about “boys with no name” in sinister fashion; at this point the sunshine and lollipops of the opening tracks seem a long way off.

For the most part, though, the melancholy Wolf outlook of old has at least been infused with a more pronounced sense of optimism. Indeed, this greater emphasis on exhorting all and sundry to turn them frowns upside-down does kind of expose some of the more irritatingly precious aspects of Wolf’s songwriting, but it’s generally executed with such conviction, it’s difficult to dislike. “The Stars” seems set to conclude the album with a slightly overdone monologue about “neverending and invisible scars,” but then Wolf annihilates any lingering reservations as he gasps, “Look up! The stars!” in a convincingly awestruck voice as the arrangement bursts into full-on heart-swelling majesty. It’s a fitting resolution to the conflicting moods that beset the album, and a genuinely overwhelming passage of the kind Wolf is unnervingly good at; whether focusing on the light or the darkness, or any of the weird shades in the middle, he’s never less than compelling.

PATRICK WOLF | The Magic Position | Low Altitude/Universal

John Payne reviewed Patrick Wolf's recent concert at the Torubadour. Click here for photos from the performance.