Patrick Wolf’s resounding baritone easily conjures up gravitas, lending his best songs a combined air of theatricality and raw emotion. The English musician’s first two records were tightly wound, explosive with pent-up angst, and beguiling in their ornate instrumentation, poetic lyrics, and damaged electronics; when Wolf trended toward a more mainstream sound—as on his last album of new material, 2011’s disco-spangled, lovesick Lupercalia—he traded the strange charms of his early work for the ill-fitting patina of generic radio pop. Management and A&R troubles made things even more complicated for the London singer-songwriter. (“If I think about Lupercalia now,” he said recently, “it’s like hands around my neck.”) Wolf’s 2012 acoustic album of reworked songs became a way of cleaning the slate that also, as the years went on, looked more and more like a career sendoff.
Wolf’s first new music in over a decade, then, has baggage to unpack. The Night Safari EP was crafted out of an intense period of personal upheaval, including bankruptcy, a struggle with addiction, and the passing of his mother. Wolf understandably turns inward, purging bouts of anxiety and depression through diffuse, melancholy electro-folk. It’s a welcome return to his earlier sound, embellished throughout with electronic wrinkles and the deep, rich tones of his viola. Early standout “Nowhere Game” clips by with clattering percussion and pitch-shifted vocal rhythms, capturing the cyclical nature of addiction in references to “the danger that keeps you alive”: “Dying to be living proof/Of something survived in your youth,” he sings mournfully over the chugging beat, adding to its acute sense of hopelessness.
The title track further recalls the sullen music of his early breakthroughs. Here, Wolf creates a gentle build of plucked Celtic harp over an eddying piano melody for a disquieting look at those late-night moments in bed when your mind chews over every anxious thought imaginable. “Don’t you lose sleep/Pay no mind to me unraveling,” he pleads as the song loosens into a digitized, cut-up rhythm. It’s a more successful approach to playing with familiar sounds than “Archeron,” which uses a 7/8 time signature to evoke a fractured headspace; Wolf delivers a cryptic, chanted monologue inspired by novelist Robert Graves amid ominous organs and strings, jerking back and forth between quiet and bombast. It’s effective in its jarring delivery, but feels stiff and out of step with the rest of the EP’s carefully arranged tableaux.
Still, Wolf’s ear for melody and imagistic lyrics remain strong, knifelike features of his music. Although The Night Safari’s sweeping dramas can be dour, Wolf’s voice, sonorous and commanding, is only growing finer with age. On “Dodona,” with its gorgeously cinematic viola solo and sorrowful piano, Wolf is at his most moving, stretching his voice from a low growl to a scratchy, throaty high. “His tongue is rattling,” Wolf sings of his protagonist, a “whipping boy” overwhelmed by trauma: “But broken bells don’t make a sound/No matter how hard you hit ’em.” Like the rest of The Night Safari’s most enthralling songs, it gives way to a well-earned, bruising form of catharsis.