Sundark & Riverlight
I don’t understand this impulse that some musicians get, usually later in their careers: the desire to re-record material. What makes them think that it’s a good idea? At best, these albums of self-covers are nostalgic retreads of a performer’s halcyon days; at worst, they’re insulting, steaming piles of wank and self-adulation that are only palatable to the most diehard of fans. With a few exceptions, these records tend to come off as cynical cash-grabs: cheap and easy to produce, with no imagination required.
Sundark & Riverlight, Patrick Wolf’s latest release, is a self-covers record; in fact, it’s two. The album splits itself up in a fashion similar to Tom Waits’ rarity collection Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards: the first disc, Sundark, includes some of Wolf’s “more solitary, darker material,” whereas Riverlight is dominated by songs of love and hope. It’s an album that’s meant to highlight Wolf’s songwriting through its stripped-down, acoustic re-interpretations of his decade-long career, and while it’s much better than the usual navel-gazing collections of old, rehashed material, it still suffers in places.
But first, the good. The record, overall, sounds great. Patrick Wolf’s voice gets better with each record, and even without his usual electro-folk blips, slams, and squelches, his weirdness is intact. He feels as if he’s from a different dimension, a magic realist London that is simultaneously kinder and more dangerous. There are a few moments on Riverlight, such as “Together” and “Bluebells,” where the songs feel fresh and new, as if I were listening to them for the first time.
But more often than not, I feel like I’m listening to the same music I already know and love, except… less so. The arrangements are unflinchingly faithful to the originals, which makes most of the songs sound like pale facsimiles, and the rare moments in which Wolf changes stuff up fall flat. For instance, “Bermondsey Street” is virtually the same as it is on Lupercalia, except now it has some irritating spoken word over it, and, in possibly the album’s worst misstep, The Bachelor’s fantastic synthpop freakout “Vulture” is turned into a contemplative piano ballad. He somehow managed to take all the punch out of the lyrics, “losing my head to Hollywood/my liver to London/my youth to Tokyo/still, on with the show.” It’s crap.
I think as a kind of tenth anniversary curio, Sundark & Riverlight is alright; at least, it’s better than a greatest hits album. But, and I apologize for getting all pop-psych on y’all, Patrick Wolf seems to be releasing this record from a place of insecurity. It’s as if he was worried that he was only being acknowledged for his idiosyncrasies and style rather than his songwriting ability, so he stripped a few tracks down and sent them back out naked.
Yet here’s the thing, Patrick: we knew how sexy these songs were even when they were full dressed. Why didn’t you?
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