vi. standing brave on the balls of his feet
Lupercalia (Mercury Records, 2011)
Lupercalia is interesting. It’s a set of songs more direct than Patrick’s ever written before, and it’s about being madly, passionately, contentedly, domestically in love with another man. But (at least to my ears) despite their factual inspiration, the songs on Lupercalia go out of their way to not be ‘gay’, in the sense that they were written to be universal love songs that are about a man but needn’t be. The most activist-y the album gets is on the one song that isn’t a me/you/we/our love song, but rather a third person narrative. That’s not a critique, necessarily, but I do think it was a specific goal of Patrick’s, who has always made no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen specifically as a ‘gay artist’ even as he’s grown more comfortable speaking out as a gay man.
I put myself out there with no irony or cynicism, so when people are horrible, it’s easy to take it personally. But, you know, the sun still comes out in the morning. I can’t worry too much if what I’m making is too gay or too straight or too this or too that. I like to throw myself into places I’m not entirely comfortable in. It’s all experience, isn’t it?”
- Patrick Wolf, The Guardian
Nothing on Lupercalia codes queer to me in the same way that the camp of ‘The Magic Position’ did; or the way that sexuality did in ‘Vulture’ or ‘Adder’ or ‘Tristan’; or the way Patrick wraps his lips around “all out for blood and sweat and meat” in ‘Accident & Emergency’; or the genderfuckery of ‘Lycanthropy’; or the declarations of perpetual singledom in ‘The Bachelor’ and especially ‘Who Will?’, which (even though ‘Who Will?’ is about his spinster aunt the nun who died of ovarian cancer) are both about being excluded from the ideals of romance and normative relationships that Lupercalia embraces. The closest we get is in ‘House’ when he acknowledges “Dylan Thomas in your face” and the title of ‘William’. That bothered me at first, a little bit.
But over at The Singles Jukebox, Zach commented that he “could not stop hearing [House] as a queer narrative, and it keeps making me think about the idea that simply existing in peace can be a radical action.” and maybe that’s the takeaway here. A universal love song written by an out gay man engaged to another dude can just exist. The fact of existing as a pop singer writing love songs about a man is totally progressive enough. You don’t need to do anything else but *be*. Anything radical about it happens as a result of the reaction of the outside world, but in your lived experience, when you aren’t being made aware of your difference by the rest of The City, you aren’t compelled to pointedly stress pronouns. [Personal digression] I’m writing this at 9AM on a Saturday, still in bed, while my boyfriend is sleeping and you know what? He’s not gay-sleeping. And in two hours, we aren’t going to have gay-breakfast. It’s just breakfast. [/Personal digression] When you’re finally comfortable in your skin, like Patrick is on Lupercalia, the constant internal reminder that you’re marked as different stops beating in your blood, until other people force you to remember, because you’re too busy being disgustingly happy. (Caveat: it’s easier to do this when you’re a white, cis gay man and not a lesbian, a queer person of colour or trans, regardless of your sexuality.)
Anyway, on with the album.
‘Bermondsey Street’ (lyrics) is possibly my favourite track on Lupercalia. It’s the only song that isn’t sung by ‘Patrick’ and addressed to a specific person. It’s a third-person narrative about two couples, one straight, one gay, getting engaged on either side of Patrick’s street. The song’s two verses are almost identical lyrically, which is the exactly point.
She kisses him on Bermondsey Street
Rises high on the balls of her feet
Declares this the greatest love
Of the century
He fumbles for a wedding ring
She’s no clone from Vogue magazine
She is complex in all her complexion
Love is here to heal
It’s a simple narrative, but it’s effective in its clarity. The emphasis that his characters aren’t supermodels, but just people going about their daily lives in the city, is a nice touch. The second verse, besides two male pronouns, changes Vogue to vintage gay porn mag Colt, which is a nice touch. More telling - and moving - is the second line, which shifts to “standing brave on the balls of his feet,” - a subtle acknowledgement that when queer love moves back across the threshold of your house out into the streets of the city, kissing him or her on Bermondsey Street isn’t entirely identical. Sometimes, you risk getting bashed, even at a Madonna concert. The chorus of ‘Bermondsey Street’, if you call it that, only appears once, but more than that probably would have been overkill. It’s Patrick, belting out:
Love knows no boundaries
Sees beyond sexuality
Holds the sun in the palm of its hand
And laughs down on the cynical man.
with ‘Love’ held out on one note as long as he possibly can. It’s a reproach to bigots everywhere, but also to the cynicism he embraced only an album ago. Musically, the song’s built around a lovely little harp figure, with touches of brass and piano - big, open sounds. As the song comes to a close, he repeats “Two kisses sweet on Bermondsey Street,” daring you to notice the difference between them. Live in concert, the verses are sung with pronouns picked at random.
After ‘Bermondsey Street’, we’re done with the big pop singles and politics, and move into an album of swooning romanticism. Lupercalia isn’t devoid of all melancholy, but it’s hopeful and comfortable, rather than bombastic. Where The Magic Position was infatuated, Lupercalia makes doing dishes and laundry and being boring and domestic sound like the most passionate and exciting thing possible.
‘The Future’ (lyrics) opens with the sound of an Appalachian dulcimer, which makes me think of Joni and Blue and that’s automatically a good thing. It begins alone in California, dreaming of home and love, miles away. The chorus is literally about crossing the return threshold, carrying him with you. “We are private worlds away from public eyes,” indicates that questions of space and place are still present, but after two minutes of build, the repetition of “carrying you over, carrying me over” burst and blossom into a flourish of brass, and the lovers are carried not just over the threshold but into the future.
‘Armistice’ (lyrics) is exactly that. After four albums of Battle, the weapons have been put away, hostilities have ceased, Patrick’s armour is removed, though foxes in the country sharpen their teeth and children in the city sharpen their knives. It’s apparently based on a Manx Gaelic folk song called ‘Blackbird’ - I haven’t been able to track down the original - but the cries of Chomreedhoo at the song’s end mean ‘coat of black’.
Sequencing is important. If ‘The Childcatcher’ was at the centre of Lycanthropy and ‘Who Will?’ in the middle of The Bachelor, then what does it say that ‘William’ (lyrics) lies at the heart of Lupercalia? Not even a minute in length, it’s the most naked I’ve ever heard Patrick (and when I saw him in Toronto, he played the last half of his set wearing nothing but a leather jockstrap and a guitar).
And I showed you my ugly heart
Yet you did not surrender
Love me back to life
Through my self-destruction December
All paranoias to trust, I turned
My body’s functions I remembered
So ‘till the going down of suns
Oh William, will you be my conqueror?
Patrick’s official site shows the lyrics to that last line as “Will you, will you be my conqueror,” but I definitely hear an ‘m’, and even if that is the case, the sonic similarities are intentional. So, even on Lupercalia, The Conqueror remains at the heart of the album.
The ‘Wolf Extended Paris Mix’ of ‘William’ is the opening track on Lemuralia, the odds and ends EP released in tandem with Lupercalia and although it only adds some sonic and instrumental flourishes at the beginning and end of the track, it’s quite pretty, and well worth a listen.
‘The Days’ (lyrics) began life as an instrumental recorded during the Vienna sessions for The Magic Position in 2006. It was originally to appear in the movie No Ghosts, which Patrick was at one time supposed to compose the soundtrack for, but the project never went forward, and the song periodically cropped up in live sets from 2007 onwards, before finding a home on Lupercalia. It’s a slow waltz, reflecting on a relationship broken by distance and the self-destruction detailed on The Bachelor, measuring out the days passed in solitude. Easily the saddest song here, it nonetheless feels of a piece with the rest of the album, if only in the continued devotion it expresses.
‘Slow Motion’ (lyrics) is the bridge between The Bachelor and Lupercalia - the story of the conquering told start-to-finish in five minutes and change. At the outset, Patrick’s kitchen is filled not with toucans and monkeys, but silverfish and fruit flies, treading water, surviving, but not living. Or at least living in slow motion. But then, “strangers meet in slow motion,” like that moment on every bad TV comedy, when the new love interest walks in to the room immediately and impeccably lit, with a wind machine blowing her hair back through the air… Et ensuite, and “breathless corrosion” becomes “breathless devotion.” The “kiss of life” and “wake me up from that deep sleep” bits are probably the only time on Lupercalia that Patrick returns to the well of folklore, and after a notable absence, their subtle return near the album’s end is more than welcome. If Patrick wants his fairytale ending, he’s more than earned it.