Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Mining the Secret Garden: Patrick Wolf "Bluebells" & "The Magic Position"

In celebration of Patrick Wolf's monumental new album, we examine the videos that have accompanied the latest two singles from the release...

Patrick Wolf "Bluebells"

dir. by Jaron Albertin

Patrick Wolf "The Magic Position"

dir. by Jaron Albertin

This isn't the first time the artist has cried wolf. On his 2003 debut album, titled Lycanthropy (the ability to assume the form and characteristics of a wolf), Patrick Wolf included the tracks "Wolf Song" and "To the Lighthouse" (a novel written by Virginia Woolf). Far from cheap promotional ploy, Wolf's self-referential writing always seemed at home with his constant struggle to capture his huge personality within his art. His 2005 follow-up, Wind in the Wires, was yet another beautiful transformation for the singer, but still hinted at a far grander beast within.

So it comes as no surprise that Wolf and director Jaron Albertin chose "Little Red Riding Hood" as the thematic base for the second video from his latest epic, The Magic Position. In many ways this record marks the climax of a cycle that began with those earlier works. Here we find the artist finally coming to terms with his inner "wolf" - expressing the freedom he previously only dreamt of. Yet Wolf has not entirely dropped his Gothic undertones, and director Albertin recognizes the inherent fear associated with self-transfiguration in "Bluebells."

A number of interpretations of the "Riding Hood" myth have attributed the red-colored hood and wolf imagery of the Brother Grimms' popular version to a metaphorical sexual awakening. It has also been read as a cautionary morality play, in which talking to strange men (or perhaps prostitution) can lead one to catastrophic results. In the hands of Wolf and Albertin it encompasses (or challenges) both these themes while remaining a significantly personal experience for the singer. At the center is the fear associated with the forest, and what might lurk in the unknown shadows of our mind.

Wolf, dressed in suspenders and with vibrantly colored red hair, looks like a child trapped in a man's body more than a man in children's clothing. He either languors around his secluded cottage dreaming of something lost in his past or wanders aimlessly through a forest searching for that truth in the sunlight. But he shuts his curtains to the fireworks of the night, attempting to keep certain thoughts out.

Much of the video seems to personify the brief track that directly precedes "Bluebells" on The Magic Potion, rather than the single itself. Wolf speaks of swallowing keys and locking doors on the similarly titled "The Bluebell," as well as watching fireworks from a distance. The two tracks work together to create the gloomy environment from which Wolf will eventually escape.

But for the moment he seems intent on avoiding escape, setting his "compass spinning" in lonely confusion. He not only swallows keys, but in an early scene the singer walks towards his piano but doesn't open it to play. He always wears his green hood outside as he retraces old steps, as if intentionally immersing himself in his nightmares. But as hard as he pushes himself into the bleakness of this "last December," he can't avoid hopeful thoughts of spring flowers (bluebells).

The menacing red hood is suddenly lit by piercing white lights, and Wolf finds the strength to uncover himself. One senses that rather than falling into love, the artist is rediscovering who he was while in love. He walks out of the red riding hood, dressed in his typically unique style, and looks almost sinister as he moves towards the camera. Here he overcomes his fears as a scared child in the forest, but also embraces the power he holds as an adult. And though he may not be able to travel back in time, he can now express those suppressed feelings through song, and in a sense relive the moment. Wolf has said the album recalls a period of intense love he experienced for two years. Thus he finds himself at the piano, playing his heart out. This is the "magic position" that his lover has led him to.

The next video, for the title-track "The Magic Position," aptly begins with Wolf in the exact same stance - albeit playing an imaginary instrument this time. The singer has also described his new songs as an attempt to capture the naivety of love, in a positive sense. Albertin harnesses that feeling of unbridled enthusiasm, which seems almost opposed to the measured tone of "Bluebells," by producing this colorful and absurdly abstract vision. Wolf taps on the helmet of a fallen motorcyclist, takes cellphones from people and urges random folks to sing and dance with him.

The video is shot on an intentionally sparse set, which works like a play more than a film. The color wheel and multitude of characters speak to Wolf's exuberant love for life in this "position," and his wish to spread that feeling to everyone through his voice (the bird that flies out of him). He puts his inner child on full display, no longer afraid or ashamed of who he is or what he wants.

But there is also an element of visible fabrication in this world, as if the director wants us to be cognizant of the show the entire time. With the paper-thin props and over-zealous acting we are hardly ever fully immersed in this fantasy environment. Instead we know that it's a performance, but a very attractive performance nonetheless. Much like Wolf's dyed hair or the joyful violins of the song, nothing can hide the world-weary quality of the singer's voice. Yet the emotion is real, and the fact that we only "sing in the major key" for short periods at a time only makes these moments of happiness all the more affecting.

In the liner notes for Lyncanthropy Wolf wrote, "In the face of a full moon, barriers, bullies, intellectuals, boogiemen, fear and failure, you grow." He's not done progressing as an artist, but these videos give a glimpse of the radical transformation that Patrick Wolf has gone through since we last saw him howling in the night. And so far, he looks great in red.


zuz said...

call me a simpleton, but i don't think he's afraid of the forest. he likes it there. i like it there.

Imran said...

i think you're right, he definitely embraces the forest and visits it quite often. but i think initially, since he shuts his curtains and the way in which the director cuts between the dark and the day, he is at least afraid of something in the forest at night that reminds him of the past. by the end of song i don't really think he fears much of anything.

Pearl said...

i know this is very late, but this is very good.

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie