I wouldn’t have pegged the Wild Beasts to be a buzz band; their sound just doesn’t seem flashy enough. Nonetheless, their star seems to be ascending with each passing release and there is plenty of buildup surrounding this record, especially in the UK. Their debut, Limbo, Panto, through ample praise put them on the map. The band’s return in 2009 with the more restrained, atmospheric Two Dancers saw them rise to the top of the current British band heap garnering rave reviews almost across the board, as well as earning them a Mercury Prize nomination. And judging from early response from the British press, their latest release, Smother, will likely continue their upward mobility. Although on the surface the album may seem like only a modest stylistic leap from Two Dancers, at least in comparison to the jump from their debut, there is clearly growth at work here.
Wild Beasts have gotten very good at boiling down the essential ingredients of each song, distilling their sound down to a few bare elements. The pulsing synthesizer and stately piano of “Lion’s Share” beautifully exercise restraint, illustrating a key component to Smother‘s success. The vocals are mixed right up front and center, especially on frontman Tom Fleming’s contributions, putting the spotlight squarely on his twisted quandaries relating to love. Fleming’s thorny tales of relationship woes are so captivating because he is at once detailed and ambiguous, leaving you to your imagination in terms of just what his metaphors mean. “Bed of Nails‘” chorus is clear enough when he pronounces “I would lie anywhere with you/ Any old bed of nails will do“; clearly this is not a healthy situation. But he consistently refers to his significant other as Ophelia, which arouses several questions. Presuming it’s a reference to Hamlet’s lover – who eventually went crazy – one is left wondering just how grave this situation actually is. The sentiment is echoed in “Lion’s Share” where Fleming states that his lover is “waifish as a widow and without sufficient sleep,” wondering “do I pull you out or do I let you sink?” His attraction to an unbalanced counterpart- someone that he’d be better off staying away from- is a classic dilemma that haunts far too many relationships.
Hayden Thorpe’s vocal entries tend to be slightly denser affairs musically and no less rewarding in their own ways. His style is the perfect counterpoint to Fleming’s; he sings in a lower register and tends to be much less quirky. If he comes off as a bit more “ordinary” it’s not such a bad thing; he still sings with enough passion to where his songs carry the same weight as Fleming’s and his voice may be a bit more palatable for new listeners. A song like “Invisible” is simply brilliant, a yearning track that threatens to explode, although wisely, never really does. The shimmering “Burning” is another album highlight featuring Thorpe; it’s stripped down to what sounds like a hammer dulcimer and some atmospheric sweeps.
No song on Smother quite captures the Wild Beasts’ dreamy, rhythmic mélange better than album closer “End Come Too Soon.” At just over seven and a half minutes, the song is truly a multi-part stunner containing some of the most striking melodies on the record. Halfway through, the track eventually breaks down into ambience only to swell back into a euphoric wordless refrain. All of this is followed by a desperate coda where Fleming repeats variations of the song’s title. Like the rest of the album, it’s both assured and masterfully assembled. It’s a perfect illustration of just how well Wild Beasts have fulfilled the promise of their first two records.
Stream: Wild Beasts – “Lion’s Share”