A sudden eruption of profuse body hair. Violent outbursts, followed by gut-wrenching remorse. Wild, unpredictable mood swings. Symptoms indicating the subject is morphing into a werewolf? Or merely the onset of an equally hideous transformation: Human adolescence? In the case of Patrick Wolf’s Lycanthropy, trying to distinguish between the two can prove a challenge, but certainly a rewarding one, as the 21-year-old’s debut unleashes an artistic howl almost as powerful and eccentric as Allen Ginsberg’s.
Born in 1983 in County Cork, Ireland, and raised in London, Wolf began studying violin and viola at the age of six; by 11, he’d built a theremin and begun writing original songs. At 12, he was performing with Minty, the outrageous U.K. performance-art band fronted by drag queen Leigh Bowery. (For want of a U.S. reference point of how unconventional this affiliation was for a youngster, imagine telling Grandma back in 1990 that you planned to let performance artist Karen “yams-up-the-wazoo” Finley, of the infamous NEA Four, baby-sit the kids.) In the ensuing years, he’s shuttled between London and Paris, fronted a punk band, and learned how to compose on everything from the harpsichord and accordion to a laptop computer.
Written and recorded between 1994 and 2002, the 14 tracks of Lycanthropy distill Wolf’s manifold talents and singular aesthetic into an odd-yet-gripping document. His music doesn’t defy description, just categorization. On “Wolf Song,” stuttering electronic beats a la Aphex Twin conclude a jig of jaunty pennywhistles and fiddles sure to appeal to the Ye Olde Renaissance Faire set. “Paris” opens with strings sawing away at eighth notes, then erupts into an industrial dance furor. And with its throbbing 4/4 beat, snap-crackle-pop electronics and Wolf theatrically belting “I want to run! / I want to scream!,” “Bloodbeat” suggests what might have happened if the zombie jamboree from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video carried its act into the 21st century.
“A boy like me is told he is both nine and ninety,” admits Wolf on the penultimate number, “A Boy Like Me.” No wonder he speaks so frankly—and poetically—in his lyrics. Particularly harrowing is “The Childcatcher,” in which the young narrator is coerced into sexual acts (“I was still a child when you caught me and tied me to your bed … ‘Just a rite of passage,’ you held me down and said”) which he or she may or may not abhor; between the blunt words, distorted vocals and bass-clarinet drone, all married to a gleeful pastiche of the chant from the nursery story “The Gingerbread Man,” the evidence is inconclusive.
With Lycanthropy, Patrick Wolf becomes the youngest inductee of the Lupine Hall of Fame, alongside luminaries including Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolfman), Virginia Woolf, and Romulus and Remus. Following such a distinctive debut, it will be curious to observe what lengths Wolf’s muse leads him to next. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day … but it was founded by a wolf.