- Tue, 2011-04-26 11:28
Wild Beasts have always been a unique band. Cavorting out of Kendal in 2008 with their debut album Limbo, Panto, the combination of Hayden Thorpe’s histrionic falsetto with the band’s baroque meanderings was as double-jointed and melodramatic as their album title suggested. The follow-up Two Dancers took the flamboyant debauchery of its predecessor and placed it in more graceful surrounds, preserving the bawdy tales of drunkenness, depravity and disorder but delivering them with a greater degree of poise that made the music simultaneously more elegant and more elegiac. Two years on and the boys are back with their third album: Smother.
Just as Two Dancers preserved the spirit of Limbo, Panto whilst giving it a slightly different voice, so too Smother is unmistakably the work of Wild Beasts, but a Wild Beasts whose collective head is now in a slightly different space. The sonic blueprint remains fully in tact: the interplay between rhythms and melodies takes the same shape that it always has, and Thorpe’s extravagant flights of fancy remain tethered by Tom Fleming’s grounded realism. But within that basic framework the band find room for manoeuvre, experimenting with more intricate production, exploring a wider range of dynamics, and showing new sides of themselves lyrically.
While the depth of texture on Two Dancers was largely achieved by adding an assortment of effects to the band’s analogue instruments, on Smother there is both a wider array of synthetic sounds and a greater degree of sonic manipulation at play. This change of approach doesn’t come at the expense of past techniques - the same swirling spaciousness permeates much of the album - but rather subtly broadens the range of visible shades. Plaything and Deeper, for example, feature muted percussive bumps and softly trilling synths, while a panting, staccato vocal sample dips in and out of Bed Of Nails. The most obvious instance of studio experimentation is on Burning; a sound like the clatter of a drumstick on exposed piano strings laps around Fleming’s mournful vocal, joined half-way through by a tapestry of gentle chimes, groaning bass notes and distant thuds and claps.
Despite an expanded arsenal of sounds, however, Smother is often a simpler, more restrained album than its predecessors. The main substance of opening track Lion’s Share is supplied by Thorpe and a piano, and while a juddering bass-synth and a soft percussive patter aid him along the way, he is more exposed than he has ever been before. The aforementioned Deeper isn’t much more complex, a delicate guitar figure doing much of the work as Fleming sings with a quiet intensity. There are still moments of complexity – of particular note is the majestic closer End Come Too Soon, tender yet thundering as it tip-toes towards a soaring coda – but the predominant instinct seems to be to allow individual voices and instruments more space to express themselves than previously they might have had.
Continuous with – or perhaps the cause of – this slight sonic shift is a change in the tone of Thorpe’s lyrical preoccupations. Testosterone and his libido have always played a very large part in Wild Beasts, and while his carnal desires are still aired they appear now to be driven more by love than lust. On Bed Of Nails he declares “I would lie anywhere with you, any old bed of nails for you, just so you’re there when I fall asleep,” and on Reach A Bit Further he seems to acknowledge his past with some degree of remorse: “you were devastatingly beautiful, I was crude, I was lewd, I was rude.”
Smother is a fantastic follow-up to Two Dancers. It preserves the core aesthetic of that album whilst finding new ways to express it, and as such is the perfect compromise between continuity and evolution. Softer, less licentious, but every bit as beautiful, it confirms Wild Beasts as a band of rare talent and charm.