REVIEW: Patrick Wolf: Sundark & Riverlight

Patrick Wolf – Sundark and Riverlight

Some artists may commemorate a decade in music by releasing a standard Greatest Hits album, with all of their hits and a few new (usually sub-par) tracks tacked onto the end. Celebrating a tenth anniversary this year are Girls Aloud, who are releasing their second Greatest Hits album with 14 of their top 20 singles, a few poor tracks from the last one taken off and the more recent singles added on, plus a few more songs to make fans actually buy it. This is the kind of thing you can get away with if you’re lucky enough to have had 20 hit singles in your decade in the industry, a minimal effort release with guaranteed profit. All you need to do is put on an orange dress and do a Children In Need performance and the sales will no doubt roll in.

Unfortunately Patrick Wolf can’t get away with any of that. He wouldn’t be invited onto Children In Need in the first place, because he’s not well-known enough and he certainly wouldn’t perform in an orange dress. Black dress, perhaps, or leather cape and headdress made of feathers, but certainly not an orange dress. To celebrate his own decade in music, if he were to release an album of ‘hits’ that charted in the top 200, it would stretch to five songs. Even during the phase when his label tried to make him into a pop star, when he appeared on T4 and he started wearing colourful clothes and riding carousels, his one single that may be known to most more than a handful of people, The Magic Position, didn’t even make the top 40.

So instead Patrick decided to record an acoustic Greatest Misses album with orchestral re-recordings of some of the best tracks from his five album career. There are three tracks from each album and one from the post-Lupercalia ‘Brumalia’. The track listing is then split in half and onto two discs, for what could have easily been one disc of music. The first disc is called Sundark (which isn’t a real word), and contains the supposedly angsty tracks, whereas the second disc is called Riverlight (also not a real word), and is for the more lovey-dovey half.
But who is this album for? It doesn’t serve as a very good introduction for new fans, of course the songs are good, but they’re not in their original form and a lot of his bombastic pop elements have been taken out.  It’s a good demonstration of Patrick’s musical ability and voice but you can’t help feeling that new listeners would be better off downloading the track listing from the relevant albums and compiling the album themselves. With this being Patrick, you can be sure that the album is supposed to be bought as a physical release in order to benefit from all of his scrawled artwork and random paraphernalia that may come with. I’m pretty sure he only releases a download version because that’s where the money is. It’s probably an album to listen to when you’re out and about, so you’d need a physical copy if you’re on your travels, or in the car, driving home on a rainy night and trying to decide whether it would be worth just steering off the road and ending it all.
I’ve followed Patrick’s career for five of these ten years, in which I’ve seen him perform twice. The first time I saw him was when it was announced that the planned headliner of the second stage at Latitude Festival had dropped out so Patrick had been bumped up. Before I went, I checked out his then current album, The Magic Position, and his two albums before that and was blown away at his performances (and his nice violinist lady). The second time I saw Patrick, he was still pretty good. He was touring The Bachelor album, which I had invested in, having become a big fan. That whole Bandstocks thing fell flat and I never got my shares back, although they probably would have only been worth a pound or so in total [Sort it out, Paddy]. During this second performance, Patrick was all dolled up in his weird leather stuff and cape, and at one point he introduced a new up and coming act who ran in a circle around the stage and then disappeared again, but overall it was pretty good (and he had been upgraded to the main stage).
With his back catalogue, there is a huge number of excellent songs to choose from to put on a greatest hits album but how many of the tracks are an improvement on the original? Let’s have a quick look… Bear in mind, Patrick is my favourite ukulele-bothering musician (sorry Amanda Palmer) and my favourite solo artist, but I’ll try my best not to be too biased.

‘SUNDARK’

1) Wind in the Wires        (from 2005’s Wind in the Wires)

Wind in the Wires doesn’t sound too different from the original, which was pretty toned down anyway. The new version lacks the haunting backing vocals of the original, but it does have the inclusion of nice new strings towards the end. The Sundark version is also around 30 second shorter, so you’re getting less Paddy for your pound, and of its 3:55 length, half a minute of that is an a new outro, which isn’t as good as the spooky noises version.
Better or worse?                                               Not too different, a little worse.

Worth Greatest Hits inclusion?                If I had to limit the track listing to three songs per album, I would swap in  ‘Lands End’ for a Patrick best of.

2) Oblivion                          (from 2009’s The Bachelor)

This version of Oblivion seems to have had all of the anger sucked out of it. What was one of the best tracks of the crowd-funded, half finished and fairly patchy The Bachelor (The Patchelor?) album has been stripped back so much that it’s now just Patrick backed by one instrument. There’s no wailing strings in the chorus, no gun SHOT (in the dark), no longer the bizarre inclusion of actress Tilda Swinton giving Patrick some mid-song words of encouragement “Wait a second, have you come so far for it to end like this? … GET BACK UP, what are you so afraid of??!”. Patrick does however acknowledge that he didn’t come this far for it to end like this, which is nice but all of the funny voices are missing.  My strangely trendy (mid-life crisis experiencing?) father had the original Oblivion as his ring tone. I don’t think he would do the same with the new version.
Better or worse?              Undoubtedly worse. Also cut short by 30 seconds or so.

Worth GH inclusion?     Without a doubt one of the standout tracks of The Bachelor, this re-recording removes all the good bits from the original, which is a huge backwards step.

3) The Libertine                         (from Wind in the Wires)

Frenetic Wind in the Wires opener The Libertine seems to have been sped up just a touch and thankfully the wailing violins (the main feature) remain intact and perhaps even more screechy. A weird plucky outro is added to the end but Patrick keeps in the part where he screams about bowing down before false idols so all is not lost. 
Better or worse?      Definitely good, edging towards better. A good acoustic reworking.

Worth GH inclusion?     For sure. Patrick at his angry best.

4) Vulture                            (from The Bachelor)

Making an acoustic version of 100% electronic Vulture was going to be hard. You can actually hear the lyrics now though, as Patrick just sings over his piano backing and the song seems much sadder and you certainly can’t imagine Patrick in his bondage gear singing this one, which is for the best actually.
Better or worse?              Vulture was always one of Patrick’s weirder singles but it is again drained of all attitude.

Worth GH inclusion?     I would rather have had Damaris, if sticking to the 3 songs per album rule.

5) Hard Times                    (from The Bachelor)

Aah, good old Hard Times, the one that should’ve been a huge hit. Despite the acoustic reworking, Patrick’s calls for revolution are not completely muted and the passion is still there.
Better or worse?              A pretty good acoustic version, not too much lost.

Worth GH inclusion?     Certainly. The most accessible song from The Bachelor

6) Bitten                               (from 2011’s Brumalia EP)

A strange one to include, considering it’s a non-album, non-single, EP track. It’s a nice track and, for the not so obsessive fans it’s a reminder that Patrick’s EPs exist and can tide you over until he makes another proper album.
Better or worse?              I wasn’t familiar with the original version before this album so it’s hard to say.

Worth GH inclusion?     I can’t help feeling that Bitten’s place on the album could have been taken up by The City, Accident and Emergency, or Tristan, to name a few actual singles.

7) Overture                         (from 2007’s The Magic Position)

Sonically, the Magic Position’s opening track is probably one of Patrick’s most joyful songs from his whole back catalogue, so I’m not sure why it’s on the angsty album. Perhaps if you listen to the lyrics questioning the point of war etc it might seem slightly more moody, but I just get lost in the lush string arrangements. As excellent as the original is, a lot is lost underneath the incessant industrial noises, so this version is extremely pleasant to the ear, even if it does lose the heartbeat-like drums.
Better or worse?              Not worse, perhaps the first track that is even better than the original, therefore not a surprise it was the first to be released to radio. And by radio I mean Radio 2.

Worth GH inclusion?     It’s up there with the best.

8) Paris                                 (from 2003’s Lycanthropy)

Paris, due to being on the debut album, has quite an industrial sound due to all the machines Patrick used early on in his music career, and the drum machine is pretty irritating, so this stripped back version is a good example of the point of the whole album: exploring the songs that sometimes got lost under all the production and funny firework noises. The drums are toned down nicely, allowing the violins to shine.  Some nice little HEY HOs are added too, which I am obviously fond of.
Better or worse?              Better, less is more.

Worth GH inclusion?     Probably the second best song on Lycanthropy, so of course.

 

RIVERLIGHT’

 

9) Together                         (from 2011’s Lupercalia)

When Patrick released a little taster of what was to come on his crowd-funded ‘Battle’ double album that never came to fruition. Battle was due to be comprised of two discs, a lot like this album, with one angry one and one happy one, but the angry one was the only one that got made, much to my annoyance as an investor.  All of the tracks ended up on the Bachelor, except ‘Together’, which was destined for The Conqueror. Eventually ‘Together’ resurfaced on Lupercalia and was a favourite track for many fans, but not for me. It seemed a bit cheesy and like the Pet Shop Boys-esque instrumental didn’t suit the song, so it is more suited to a simple string arrangement, without that woman wailing at the end.
Better or worse?              Better

Worth GH inclusion?     It shouldn’t have taken the place of Time of my Life, should it?

10) The Magic Position (from The Magic Position)

As far as most people are concerned, The Magic Position is the big one, in that it was played on T4 once and around that time Patrick appeared on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. It was the single that was given the big push and when it didn’t all work out, the label dropped him for not being enough like Mika. The main instrumental hook in this version sounds less like a fairground, so the slightly cheesy edge is taken off. An acoustic rendition allows Patrick’s vocal to take centre stage and it sounds a little bit less like he’s singing about bumming, which may have put people off in the first place. He was singing about being in a position where he is able to love! Not a magical sexual position.
Better or worse?              A refreshing listen but not as joyous as the should-be classic.

Worth GH inclusion?     It wouldn’t be a greatest hits album without one of Wolf’s two top 80 hits!

11) Bermondsey Street (from Lupercalia)

I don’t know why Bermondsey Street made its way onto the Greatest Hits album, it wasn’t even one of the best on Lupercalia. I know it’s about free love between all people/genders/living things and Patrick’s really into that, but both verses are the same and as a song it’s a bit lazy. So what better way to mark its inclusion on Riverlight than by adding weird Russian and Spanish monologues onto each end of the song and padding it out by an extra minute and a half?
Better or worse?              Worse. The monologues make for a very odd and uncomfortable listen. Russian isn’t a sexy language for pop music. Imagine if Shaddup You Facefed off Russian stereotypes, would people have bought it?… I don’t know why they did in the first place but I would guess at no.

Worth GH inclusion?     Not at all. The Future was another big lovey one from the same album and was far better. It’s irritating that Tristan didn’t make the album and this did.

12) Bluebells                       (from The Magic Position)

Bluebells is the best track from The Magic Position and its acoustic version is nice without the fireworks, which could be quite distracting in the original. However, considering it’s another of his best songs, it is unforgiveable that it is cut a minute and a half short.  I do actually quite enjoy whistling along to the firework noises, now I think about it.
Better or worse?              Worse, I miss the bangs and whistles and Bluebells should nick her extra time back from Bermondsey Street.

 

Worth GH inclusion?     Certainly. Paddy should have whipped out his penny whistle though.

13) Teignmouth                (from Wind in the Wires)

The more I think about it, the more certain I become that Wind in the Wires is Patrick Wolf’s best album, it’s certainly the one I go back to most, as it’s so downbeat and so damn melancholy.  During my three years living the West Country, I loved going through Teignmouth and listening to the song. Teignmouth itself had pretty good charity shops and award-winning public toilets and a nice little village on the end, perched on a hill overlooking Teignmouth beach. I liked to pretend that all the people there never made it out of the village and hunted all their food with sticks.  The Riverlight version of Teignmouth definitely benefits from having the annoying drum machine taken out, as with other songs, but aside from that this version isn’t too different.
Better or worse?              Not much difference.

Worth GH inclusion?     It is undoubtedly beautiful but it’s not in my WitW top 4.

14) London                         (from Lyncanthropy)

London, like some of the others, was pretty acoustic in the beginning so this isn’t much of a reworking, just a rerecording .
Better or worse?              Probably as close to the original version as any of the others.

Worth GH inclusion?     One of the more listenable tracks from Lycanthropy, for sure.

15) House                            (from Lupercalia)

During the Lupercalia album campaign, Patrick was playlisted twice on Radio 2, which usually signals the death of a career, whether it’s when a DJ hits 40 and becomes too old for Radio 1, or an artist is no longer cool enough (see: Robbie Williams).  House was a pretty good song though, Patrick at his happy best, and the video had lots of nice animals in it, which is always a winner, and no pretend girlfriend like the The City video. This version on Riverlight has all of the exciting bits taken out though.
Better or worse?              Worse. Drained of sing-along joy.

Worth GH inclusion?     Yes, of course. Not enough people sing songs of appreciation about their houses and other inanimate objects. He did move out of the house this year though and put all of his possessions into storage, so maybe his intense love for this house is debatable.

16) Wolf Song                    (from Lycanthropy)

Wolf Song is in my top 3 Patrick songs so it is very pleasing to see it on his greatest misses album. I don’t know what made me forge such an emotional attachment to Wolf Song. It’s short, Splenda sweet and a great shower sing-along. Maybe it’s because I feel like a lone wolf looking for my pack, maybe it’s because of that time in my first year of university when everybody left for a night out before me and I was left behind in the corridor of our halls, dressed as a lion and wailing Wolf Song with a bottle in my hand. Either way, it’s probably my favourite Patrick song and a good way to finish the album. The acoustic version doesn’t add much, and as with most of the songs, is shortened, so that’s not ideal.
Better or worse?              Not too different as it wasn’t one of the songs where everything was buried under a massive amount of production and noise.
Worth GH inclusion?      YES.  THE MOON, LET IT GUIDE YOU AND I SHALL FIND YOU A HOME IN OUR HEARTLAND, A HEART IN OUR HOMELAND, UNTIL THE MOON IS DOOOWOOWOOWN.
Overall, I can’t help feeling that Patrick compiled this album for Patrick. It will tide fans over until his next album, but aside from that, most of the tracks aren’t as good as the original form. I think the idea was to strip back the over the top production on his songs, but as half of the track listing was mainly acoustic in the first place, this seems needless. It’s a pretty peaceful listen, which I can’t deny. It’s of course all beautiful, but I think you’d just be better off listening to Wind In The Wires in full instead.

Patrick’s albums in my order of preference:

Image

Listen here to the unofficial:
GREATEST MISSES PLAYLIST
(IMPROVED TRACK LISTING, ORIGINAL VERSIONS)

Advertisements