Patrick Wolf's third album, The Magic Position, bursts with songs as polychromatic as a Pantone wheel. Wolf's figure is trim, his dark eyes and sharp cheekbones eminently photogenic; British fashion line Burberry recruited him to model for their fall 2007 campaign. He boasts a captivating backstory—child prodigy, teenage runaway—and radiates is-he-or-isn't-he? sexuality. Like Britain's other skinny, postgay pinup boys (Mika, Jake Shears), Wolf might appear to have just sprung out of a comic strip, but his vibrant music doesn't just slap a fresh face on time-tested pop formulas.
Wolf has issued three daunting full-lengths informed by British folk idioms, classical violin, and early 20th-century electronic composers; he namechecks Berio and Boulez, not Marc Bolan. MySpace buzz? That's nothing: Leigh Bowery's shocktastic '90s band Minty numbered among his earliest patrons. From busking with an accordion on the Thames-spanning Hungerford Bridge, he advanced to studying composition at Trinity College.
Surveying the cover of The Magic Position, it's tempting to poke fun at the 24-year-old. Dressed in scarlet knee pants, floppy locks dyed to match, he poses on a carousel, straddling a miniature donkey. Precious? Perhaps. But once the garrulous baritone opens up, it becomes apparent that, as with prime David Bowie and Kate Bush, Wolf approaches extramusical elements—videos, live performances, promotional photos—as components of an integrated aesthetic. His eye-popping threads weren't chosen by a stylist, they were dictated by the music.
Just as modulation from minor to major key in classical music traditionally signals emotional uplift, Wolf aspired to progress past the darkness of his previous albums, Lycanthropy (2004) and Wind in the Wires (2005), with The Magic Position.
"I had this abstract template of ideas that led me through: Technicolor music, very high fidelity, no messiness, no noisiness," Wolf says. "Music that was clean and pure, and that reflected the feeling of joy, so you don't feel sad or sorrowful. There are no dirty emotions there."
The 13 originals bubble with chirruping woodwinds and bright, ascending keyboard runs. The rhythms pack the percussive wallop of a toddler banging on an overturned plastic bucket. The eeriness of earlier work is not banished entirely (check out the sudden apparition of Marianne Faithfull on "Magpie"), but it is applied very sparingly.
While writing and recording, Wolf cocooned himself in a physical space that nurtured this mindset. "In my studio, I always try to set up the surroundings of making that record, in the same way that I might take the steps to make a music video afterward—translate the musical to the visual," he says.
Had House & Garden dropped in while Wolf made The Magic Position, they would have discovered surroundings pitched somewhere between an amusement park and a gingerbread house. "Everything in the bedroom was gingham," Wolf says. The lighthearted mood didn't stop at the furnishings, either. "I listened to a lot of German children's music, glockenspiels with little childlike voices on top." The 1952 Danny Kaye cinema fairy tale Hans Christian Andersen was also a staple. "That inspired a lot of the emotion on this record."
When he first toured to promote the album, the change of tack startled fans in small British hamlets expecting his dark, romantic leanings of yore. "I wore this dinosaur-goes-to-the-disco outfit, with padded spikes like a stegosaurus," he recalls. "I just wanted to drink a bottle of Baileys, and cheer people up with some great pop music."
Once The Magic Position hit North America in May, however, Wolf started receiving warmer receptions—particularly in our backyard. "The Sasquatch! Festival, actually, was the first time those songs saw a bit of daylight, and people got to experience them in a more traditionally happy, optimistic way—not just in some dark nightclub," he says. "It was sunshine and a bit of cider, happiness and community."
With autumn underway, Wolf predicts current dates will be less exuberant. "I'm a very seasonal creature, so there is a bit of a slip down the pessimistic ladder," he says. "But hopefully in a good way." And when he returns home to complete work on his next record, it will be to appropriate décor.
"The album I'm making now is a dark, messy turmoil," he says. "My studio is a mess of wires, torn fabrics, and dirty curtains. It's gone from Disneyland to a haunted house."