The solo career of Peter Wolf proved to be a rather quixotic enterprise, initially. His early solo records, 1984’s Lights Out and 1987’s Come As You Are, tried to capitalize on the party pomp of his days as frontman for the J. Geils Band. But by then, the MTV generation, which had awarded Geils an unexpected career renaissance earlier in the decade, had moved on, relegating Wolf to relic status. Each successive record seemed to garner less attention than its predecessor, which was a shame, given how there were real gems in his catalogue, most notably 2002’s Sleepless. Such neglected works were audacious, in that they allowed the one-time roadhouse rock wild man to ease into a more studied soul music environment, making him something of a sagely elder.
A Cure for Loneliness comes to us on the heels of Wolf’s 70th birthday. While the record (Wolf’s eighth solo album) isn’t likely to trigger any kind of commercial rebirth at this late stage of his career, its music is a rich testament to just how scholarly Wolf’s command of roots music remains.
The most immediate assurance offered here is the resilience of Wolf’s vocal work. His balance of soul and sass remains effortless, with his tone still rich and largely unblemished by age. The difference is the jive-talking strut of the Geils years is now largely filtered through sometimes unexpected channels, as on It Was Always So Easy (to Find an Unhappy Woman), a hapless honky-tonk come-on of a song. Some Other Time, Some Other Place, on the other hand, sprints along with an autumnal shuffle that sounds right in line with Robert Earl Keen’s more wistful compositions. For sheer shock value, though, check out the spry bluegrass revamping of the Geils classic Love Stinks.
While the country elements of those tunes might constitute a stylistic departure, Wolf approaches them with the same soul-soaked confidence he gives to more overtly R&B inclined songs like Wastin’ Time and It’s Raining (the latter dedicated in a spoken intro to Bobby Womack). But the real fun comes when Wolf veers A Cure for Loneliness into less obvious recesses of his soul-infatuated universe, specifically, the Slim Harpo-style blues and boogaloo of How Do You Know and the swing-style animation of Mr. Mistake.
Best of all is the album’s biggest surprise, where Wolf plays crooner. On Tragedy, he takes up company with a pair of backup singers who harmonize like the Andrew Sisters. Wolf, in the meantime, plays the part of trench-coated romantic, singing the song’s hushed and unapologetically sentimental verses not as camp but as a form of confessional heartbreak.
Turn all these treats loose, and there is no way anyone is going to stay lonely for long.