Somewhere in the National Portrait Gallery, there’s a picture of Patrick Wolf and Twelve Ballerinas by Tim Walker. It was shot in 2008, when Wolf was making some attempt at becoming a pop star, what with The Magic Position’s glittery intentions being visible from space. The public, as unobservant as ever, didn’t see that he was the next big thing so he went away and made The Bachelor in 2009, a collection of songs in the key of doom. The lead single, Vulture, saw him discovering leather, because that’s the natural progression after pop loses its shine.
This didn’t get the public banging down the doors either, so he went away and came back with Lupercalia in 2011, the album where Wolf toned down the theatrics and managed to become a pop star on his own terms, producing The City, Time of my Life and House. Each of them was a masterclass of pop writing, of glorious choruses and of a wild soul embracing love and sailing a ship into calmer waters.
Five years later we find Wolf in a position of being able to sell out Islington Assembly Halls to an adoring crowd of 800, but the pretence of Wolf being a serious contender in the charts is surely dead in the water, if being in the charts is even something to aspire to anymore.
His position in the music scene of 2016 is of a consummate performer, with his youthful rage lower in the mix. After all, his debut album is a teenager. Gliding onstage, Wolf retains all of his immense presence and starts with acoustic renditions of Augustine and Godrevy Point. His voice is a magnificent tool, whooping, wailing, deep and resonant and then gliding into a falsetto without a hint of stress. Throughout the show, his vocal delivery hits a note that sets off goosebumps and is always captivating. Soon, he is joined by a bassist and a drummer; the setup of the show is far removed from the early days of him and a laptop, or him and a ukulele. The laptop comes back into use for Bluebells with its firework sounds and his brilliance as a musician is screamingly obvious when To The Lighthouse arrives, full of anxious beats and vocal gymnastics.
His new tracks, Constant Sorrow (seemingly being played for the first time here!), The Watcher and The golden Gate all showcase Wolf’s biggest gift, his incredible ear for a melody that can be sweet and foreboding all at once. His mashup of Jacob’s Ladder and Tristan gave him the chance to have a minor hissy fit, perhaps engineered to appeal to the fans wanting a taste of his dramatic side. A slight hand movement, a firm “no!” and the band stop. “This is rubbish!” and they start again, with Wolf crouched on the floor or gyrating by the drums to the driving bass and insistent drums as he screams “I am Tristan and I am alive!” again and again. As he bangs his chest and pushes his voice further into guttural squeals, I am struck by the thought that perhaps his temper is born out of an artistic perfection and frustration at his limits. Short of an alien exploding out of his chest, there really wasn’t much more he could do to entertain us.
The encore consisted of Get Lost with new lyrics and forthcoming single Wake the Wildsound, which sounds utterly spellbinding with its glorious piano and giant chorus. Even if the commercial acclaim has remained illusive, Patrick Wolf is one of the best pop stars we’ve got.