It is by now a truism that the work of a happy, newly partnered musician, emerging from a period of angst and personal darkness, will take a nosedive. And I’m not here to do the typical reviewer’s trick of opening with a standard expectation only to demonstrate how it’s been confounded. Lupercalia, while by no means uninteresting, can only be read (in terms of Wolf’s oeuvre) as a missed opportunity, a moment of reconciliation that could have been great, but one in which Wolf, paradoxically (in view of his newfound optimism) evincing the hubristic tragedian, allows Eros to get the better of Psyche.
When I call his optimism newfound, I’m not suggesting that this mood has never before revealed itself; one of Wolf’s strongest songs, “The Magic Position,” was premised on a chaotic outburst of love and happiness. But the apex of his career — the album of the same title — was such precisely through its complex interweaving of light and dark, of joy, sorrow, and pain, through the experimental human-ness of its material, lyrical and musical. While the first part of Lupercalia tends to the upbeat, in sonic terms Wolf hasn’t lost this contradictory mojo. Orchestral pop dominates, but there are well-judged touches of electronica lurking behind the scenes, and one of the strongest tracks, “Together,” takes the dark, unsatisfactory beats characteristic of The Bachelor and reshapes them to beautiful purpose. “Bermondsey Street,” another highlight, wouldn’t sound out of place on The Cure’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” given its upbeat horn stabs and piano fills. And while the second single, “The City,” is straight-up, less-than-enthralling pop (accompanied by a beachy, MTV-esque clip that one can hardly bear to read as unironic), the first, “Time of My Life,” is catchily addictive, though leaning perhaps too much on its resemblance to “The Magic Position” (it may be no coincidence that “Time of My Life” began its own life as an earlier track, a celebration of a breakup).
But the aforementioned missed opportunity is evidenced in the auditory pleasures the album offers — pleasures that, though not flexing Wolf’s more unique and experimentalist muscles, seem to form a happier medium recalling the ghosts of various albums past. For lyrically, one struggles to imagine how someone as literary and thoughtful as Wolf (there do remain references to Dylan Thomas) can fail to see the problematics of lines espousing love making a house a home, a home that confers “the greatest peace [he’s] ever known” on one who’s “been too long a rolling stone”; or, again, love (if you’re planning to listen to the album, you better get used to the word) that “knows no boundaries/ sees beyond sexuality” …and so on, and so on as the album progresses.
So why would we view this confident optimism as Wolf’s fatal flaw? Having recently seen him perform live, I’d rate this trait as one of his most endearing characteristics, a determination that is never grim, a self-possession that remains hedged around with hints of shyness and modesty. If I’d seen him 15 years ago, my walls would be plastered with blown-up posters of his face. The determination to go his own way, to forge a personal path based on that voice (an instrument that, as always, is enthralling, lush, intimate and expansive) has created the original chamber-punk, mixing Kate Bush with electronica, one whom his devoted fans have come to hold dear (though I can’t help wondering how they’ll receive an album more akin to Marina and the Diamonds’ Bush than the more unique echoes apparent hitherto).
But the basis of the lyrical flaws so apparent on Lupercalia lie in this same naïve sincerity and the will to express what is inside when that may be an emotion only expressible in cliché (though in saying that, we should note that others have managed to avoid expressing it thus), the attitude in which one knows what the world may say and doesn’t care (or, as “The City” puts it, “don’t care about cash nor careers,” a line that grates more than a little). Wolf has called the album “extremely honest… every song is a true story and not disguised with the folklore and fairytale that I’ve been known for in the past.” But though for him this may seem to be a progress toward honesty and wholeness, for the listener the benefits are not so clear. And while his aim was to “approach [the love song] in a way that hadn’t been done before,” that hasn’t been achieved in any clear-cut fashion.
Speaking of progress, Wolf was something of a child prodigy: although his first album appeared when he was 20, it apparently consisted of material produced over a period from 1994 onwards — that is, from the tender age of 11. He is now 27 and has spent the years since his breakthrough (in the Wind In The Wires/Magic Position period) in the spotlight. Do we cut him some slack, allow him to express these very human emotions that may be related to the oft-settling influence of one’s late twenties, without over-harsh criticism? Or do we judge him as an adult, with all that that entails? I’d hate to say that growing up is a process of relinquishing one’s imagination, but to counter that cliché, we might say that what we’re seeing here is a re-illusionment (rather than a disillusionment), an illusion, however, that has affinities with a mirage, in that it’s unsatisfying for the viewer. In other words, we need to ask ourselves: do we keep our idol on a pedestal, idealized but infantilized, or do we allow him what will hopefully be a fleeting moment of all-too-human tragedy?
Pursuing these mythical stereo-arche-types further into the cultural unconscious, we can observe that Lupercalia was originally to be titled “The Conqueror,” the good twin to The Bachelor’s evil, but the new title references instead the eponymous Roman ceremony, a rite of the purification of evil spirits and their rejection from the decadent city of Rome. The Romance (language) reference to the wolf, ‘lupus,’ doesn’t go unnoticed. But while this album is obviously both a renewal and a celebration, we see little of the wildness that humans attribute to wolves or the erotic anxiety associated with Pan, Greek counterpart of the Roman Lupercus for whom the festival was named. Indeed, returning to our tragic thematics, we might cry with the Classicists and (ironically) the Romantics: “Great Pan is dead!”