If Wild Beasts have yet to reach your radar, now’s as good of a time as any to start looking into them. Their second album, 2009’s “Two Dancers”, marked a significant shift in their sound from the completely abstract and weird-for-the-sake-of-weird towards something more pop-friendly musically and hypersexual lyrically. Beyond that, the more challenging theatric and falsetto vocal style of Hayden Thorpe was its own issue, turning off a lot of people that might have otherwise fallen in love with the band. So with that course correction also came a smoothing out of the vocals, along with bassist Tom Fleming bringing his own deeper voice to a handful of tracks that created a better balance. To their added benefit, the Wild Beasts live show became a huge point of attraction, building with even more intensity and beauty than what was heard on record. On their new one “Smother”, they not only continue on the same track, but they’re leaner, meaner and more focused than ever before. And for the fans of the band’s previous efforts, they remain truly original and rock solid in their ambitions, refusing to dull over the edges that made them so sharp in the first place.
“I take you in my mouth like a lion takes his game”, is one of the lines in the first verse of opening track “Lion’s Share”, and it’s a stark indication of exactly where the band’s mindset is right from the start. Yes, the band is highly sexual when it comes to most of their lyrics, but they’re also very classy and moderately obscure about it. In that sense, it is the hinting at sexual situations allows for more florid language that impresses as much as it titillates. It’s also remarkably poetic, though never to the point where while blindly studying Shakespeare you come to find out the totality of words are just metaphors for getting it on. Yet you do come away from “Smother” with the understanding that it was a record made by very smart, art-inspired guys. The song “Bed of Nails” entangles the stories of “Hamlet” and “Frankenstein” within its web, dropping references to the character of Ophelia and the big green out-of-control monster. “When our bodies become electrified/together we bring this creature alive/it’s alive/it’s alive/it’s aliiiiiive”, are lyrics that are as charged with passion as they are pop culture. Similarly, “Reach A Bit Further” was largely inspired by Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”, though that book on bullfighting is, like virtually everything else on the record, infused with meditations on relationships of love and lust. Who says that sex and art can’t co-exist in brilliant fashion? Certainly not Wild Beasts.
Outside of the lyrics being their own separate story, the overall composition of the tracks on “Smother” is amazing unto itself. This is a much slower and sparser record than “Two Dancers”, which as its title suggested, had a decent enough rhythm to get a body (or two together) moving. Still, the way that rhythm and percussion are very liberally used in these songs, with a wide variety of instruments to tap on, is one of the record’s strongest suits. On a record so instrumentally stripped, it makes small contributions like the bongo hits on “Deeper” and “Plaything” interacting with the more traditional drum kit and even some electronic beats that much more impactful. The drama and sweeping beauty that the piano and subdued guitar provide when matched to Thorpe or Fleming’s vocals also makes for some of the most special moments on the record, as with single “Albatross” or the epic finale of “End Come Too Soon”. With things so pared down, there are portions of the album that bear an interesting resemblance to The xx, though Wild Beasts don’t explore silence quite like they do. There’s a little bit of irony in that too, considering that “Two Dancers” lost last year’s Mercury Prize to The xx’s debut record.
The progression of Wild Beasts has been impressive over the course of their three records. With each successive one they’ve shown a distinct ability to do more with less while keeping some of their most obvious eccentric flaws in check. Yet they remain elusive and of a singular vision, both of which seem to be serving them well in spite of the apparent pressure to become more marketable or generally pop-driven. There’s little on “Smother” that feels like it could work in the context of a legitimate, radio-friendly single, save for what they’ve already chosen in “Albatross”, but what the record lacks in easily digestible melodies, it more than makes up for with austere beauty and equally poetic lyrics. There is a sense that in the next album or two they might just come around enough to where they’ll officially catch fire and ride a wave of hype to the standard of success we’ve seen from bands like TV on the Radio or The National. Seeing as how they’re pretty much on the brink already, “Smother” is your ticket to get in on the ground floor.