Wild at Heart – A Review of Wild Beasts’ Smother

The British band Wild Beasts is more mild than wild, but they do celebrate their animal nature. Their third album has a slinky sensual sound with songs titled “Deeper,” “Plaything,” and “End Comes Too Soon.” Lyrics include lions, bulls, and birds, as well as innuendos to post-coital breakfast and oral sex. As for the album title, Smother, well, use your imagination.

Still, Wild Beasts are less raunchy than they are saucy and nerdy. Their band name alludes to les fauves, the circle of French painters led by Henri Matisse and Andre Derain. Songs on Smother reference Shakespeare, Coleridge, Hemingway, and Mary Shelley, and quote a film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The band also says the new album was inspired by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, which means instant literary credibility. (If you haven’t read The Hour of the Star, stop reading this review and get a copy now. Seriously)

Singer Hayden Thorpe is easy on the ears, with a countertenor that sounds more operatic and theatrical than most rock vocalists. His warbly, breathy falsetto ranges in mood from jaunty to haunting. Thorpe also articulates with precision, which makes the lyrics intelligible and adds to the album’s air of literate foppishness. Imagine if Win Butler (Arcade Fire) or Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) played the lead in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

The music on Smother is catchy, minimalist, and understated, with the ambient aesthetic of Roxy Music or the xx. The opener, “Lion’s Share,” is a Broadway ballad with a muted bass drone, a repeated piano riff, and a late-breaking layer of electronic beats. A pulsing organ drives “Bed of Nails,” the likely single. “Loop the Loop” and “Reach a Bit Further” have a similar bouncy guitar, which makes them sound like companion pieces. “Albatross” features sparse, plucky guitar and what sounds like a thumb piano.

Wild Beasts, Bed of Nails

Lyrically, the songs are interspersed with old-fashioned diction (“waifish as a widow”) and poetic allusion (“Albatross, albatross/How callous the ocean you cross”).  In “Bed of Nails” Thorpe sings “Oh, Ophelia/I feel you,” the kind of pun you might hear in a high school English class studying Hamlet. On “Plaything,” he slithers like a soulful and slightly creepy seducer: “Main squeeze/Unfold my body/I’ve ransacked myself/I’ve flat packed myself/For your ease.” And somehow he manages to make the phrase “I concur” sexy.

Wild Beasts, Plaything

The mystery of Smother is why Thorpe cedes vocal duties to bassist Tom Fleming on three of the 10 songs. Fleming has a warm, husky voice and an earnest delivery that fits the music’s lounge vibe. But juxtaposed with Thorpe, he seems outgunned. His songs– the sultry “Deeper” and the achy, cloying ballads “Invisible” and “Burning” — are the album’s soft spots. Fleming does hit his stride on the duet “Reach a Bit Further,” but then gets upstaged by Thorpe and his singsong nursery rhyme raps.

Wild Beasts, Reach a Bit Further

The larger mystery of Wild Beasts is the discrepancy between their concerts and their albums. Their show a few years ago at the Bowery Ballroom was a high-energy, high-volume affair where Thorpe wailed like a banshee and the bass thundered in our ribs. By contrast, their albums Limbo Panto (2008), Two Dancers (2009) and now, Smother are far more soft and subdued.

On the last song of Smother, Thorpe chants “the end comes too soon” 25 times in a row. The chorus is both a cheeky meta-reference and a final innuendo. Luckily, if you’re craving more when the record ends, you don’t have to wait a few minutes to hear it again.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed new albums by Fleet Foxes and Frank Ocean, as well as The Pale King, the posthumously published novel by David Foster Wallace.

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