By Paul Faller
When it comes to the appropriate time to release a ‘best-of’ album, most artists would seem happy to simply collect their singles and other popular tracks, tack on a couple of new songs, and call it a day. However, as anyone who’s paid attention to Patrick Wolf at any point in the past ten years could tell you, he’s not ‘most artists’. So instead, we get Sundark And Riverlight – a two-disc collection of newly recorded acoustic re-workings of tracks from throughout his career. As such, it’s only natural to to cast our minds back to the original recordings and contrast them with these new versions.
Throughout the record, the most striking thing is how firmly Wolf has stuck to his vision – this truly is his first purely acoustic record. As such, the electronic crackle and hum that ran through ‘Wind In The Wires’ and ‘Teignmouth’ is replaced with a stately, classical sensibility, while ‘House’ gets a baroque makeover thanks to its stirring woodwind section. In general, the new recordings stay pretty faithful to the originals – the high drama of ‘The Libertine’ is just as tense when re-imagined with stabbing strings and a relentless military snare drum, and the new arrangement of ‘Overture’ lacks none of the original’s adventurous determination or bittersweet hopefulness. The emotional impact of these songs remains equally undiminished – whether it be an ode to a lost love (‘Bluebells’), or a tearful farewell to a much-loved city (‘London’).
However, some songs do get a more radical overhaul. While I miss the electronic shock and awe of the original, there’s no denying that ‘Paris’ is still one of the most brilliant songs in Wolf’s catalogue, its energy maintained here by an urgent and beautiful string arrangement. ‘Oblivion’, meanwhile, is disarmingly sparse, featuring nothing more than Patrick’s voice and an acoustic guitar – it’s testament to his songwriting that it remains equally as compelling (if not more so) in this incarnation. Of all the songs on the album, it’s ‘Vulture’ that gets the most surprising and dramatic transformation – stripped of its provocative, Alec Empire produced digital hardcore stylings, it’s reborn as a fragile, broken piano ballad, trading campy posturing for emotional devastation. If there’s one song on this record that I’d say is unequivocally an improvement on its original incarnation, then this is it. Fellow The Bachelor cut ‘Hard Times’ gets a more subtle re-working, with a more minimal, laid-back rhythm section and a dash of harpsichord.
The collection wouldn’t be complete without Wolf’s most instantly recognisable hit, ‘The Magic Position’ – a song so joyfully vibrant that it would have been pretty much impossible to botch – but it’s nice to see some lesser known tracks getting a look-in too. The inclusion of the emotionally-charged ‘Bitten’ (from last year’s Brumalia EP) is a particularly nice touch – it’s an excellent track that indicates to newcomers the sheer depth of Wolf’s catalogue, and a great reminder to long-time fans of a record they might have overlooked. And it’s clear that this is an album or the fans first and foremost, no more so than on ‘Bermondsey Street’ – whose spoken word interludes seemed completely superfluous to me until I discovered that they were from fans showing solidarity with the LGBT community in Russia. However, unless you know this beforehand or understand the languages being spoken, the context will no doubt be missed, which is a shame.
The collection comes full circle with a version of ‘Wolf Song’ that could have come from an alternative past where Wolf had access to a string quartet, replacing the ramshackle charm of the Lycanthropy original with a maturity and clarity befitting of an artist ten years into his career. It’s a perfect way to round out this retrospective – simultaneously acknowledging his growth and evolution as an artist, whilst not forgetting his roots. As a celebration of Patrick Wolf’s beautiful, poetic songwriting, Sundark And Riverlight is an absolute success – here’s to the next ten years being equally spellbinding.