At the age of just 27 and with four albums already in the bag, Patrick Wolf has managed to do what many would consider impossible; stick to his roots while amassing a slowly growing cult following.
His breakthrough came with 2007′s The Magic Position, which saw him leapfrog the newly emerging folk-pop scene. Its follow-up could have seen him nudge the likes of Mumford And Sons out of their cozy position in Radio 2 listeners’ hearts, but instead he recorded The Bachelor.
The 2009 record was written during a self-confessed low point. It saw him team up with the dark lord of electro, Alec Empire, for a record that split fans. Some thought it was his most experimental, honest work to date, but others dismissed it as a pretentious glitch, soon to be forgotten. Either way, it spawned two of his most memorable shows to date at the London Palladium and Heaven.
Back on familiar ground, tonight’s gig showcases his upcoming fifth album, Lupercalia, and sees him take a huge step away from The Bachelor, and veer back towards the light again. For a start, he’s reverted to his old, boy-next-door look; his red hair and chiselled Burberry model jaw the only concessions to the flamboyance on display during his last tour. He’s content, it seems, to put that period of his life to bed, at least for now.
The second indication that it’s going to be a more sober affair comes with his choice of opening track, Armistice. It’s a strange choice; a brooding, slow burner lifted from Lupercalia, he hammers the keyboard with barely a glance at the audience. It’s followed by the album’s first single, Time Of My Life; a rousing slab of the feel good violin-led folk-pop that he’s best known for.
Right from the off he dips in and out of his impressive back catalogue. Some oldies get an airing; To The Lighthouse from his 2003 debut, Lycanthropy and Tristan from 2005′s Wind In The Wires, join the more predictable Accident and Emergency and The Magic Position. But it’s the likes of Who Will? and The Bachelor, taken from the album of the same name, which sound like they’re lifted from another time. Twisting and self-conscious, they don’t offer the light at the end of the tunnel he usually captures so well, and sit like the elephant in the room alongside jaw-achingly sweet new tracks like House and Bermondsey Street.
He might have packed the costumes and dance routines away for now, but there’s still plenty of theatrics on display. The extent of his performance tonight might be bounding around stage, flitting between instruments, but KOKO’s the perfect place for his voice, and his baritone fills the former theatre to stunning effect during new track Together – an anthemic, operatic warbler.
The highlight of the evening comes with his first encore track, Hard Times. The violent high-point of The Bachelor, it’s got Empire’s mark stamped all over it, and for a moment we’re transported back 18 months to a time when a masked Wolf was putting on shows that were visually as well as aurally stunning, and searching some of his darkest, most uncomfortable moods for inspiration. Finale The City sounds triumphant but lacks the passion and conviction the more despairing Wolf oozed just minutes before.
Tonight saw a calmer, easier-to-handle Wolf and, as KOKO slowly clears out, the audience continues singing the chorus of The City; a suggestion that he’s back on course with his fans. But the fire in his belly has diminished and as an artist who thrives on spilling his life into his work, a happy Wolf is less engaging than an angry one.