It’s hard for me to get a handle on what exactly people think about the Wild Beasts. Not that I spend my days going around seeking out those who have heard and have something to say about the Leeds quartet. But aside from reading through some responses to their music on the Internet, I really haven’t heard very many people say anything at all about them. And this somewhat surprises me, both because their principle singer, Hayden Thorpe, indulges in androgynous howls and shrieks that annoy, delight, and are not easily forgotten; and because they write some ingenious, edgy pop music that is both effortlessly enigmatic and challenging.
Wild Beasts’ first record, Limbo Panto, contained two very, very good singles: the skittering, jangling summer pop starburst “The Devil’s Crayon” and the bouncing, maniacal “Brave Buoyant Bulging Clairvoyants.” And while, on the whole, the record was hit and miss, it impressed by virtue of the fact that the young band that had created it had already staked out a sound and attitude thoroughly their own. Without doubt, a large part of the dark, idiosyncratic aura that permeates Wild Beasts’ work is provided by Thorpe’s unique, just-barely-restrained brand of hysterics. But, as “Devil’s Crayon” suggested, Thorpe’s counterpart, bassist and vocalist, Tom Fleming, is able as well to make the mysterious resonate with the familiar via his gruff baritone.
The Beasts’ new record, Two Dancers, plays off the space between these two, very distinct voices and the way that they are laid amidst smoldering, sensuous instrumentation. Two Dancers is shadow and glowing ashes, empty low-lit streets that portend pleasure and violence, the two irresistibly entwined. These, perhaps, are the two dancers, each empty without the other, condemned to dance to the end of night. Benny Little’s guitar work on this record isn’t exactly big, but it is heavy, mildly spectacular in a way that could entrance large audiences. It draws the listener in as Thorpe’s voice keeps him or her at arm’s length, unable to swoon fully for the hooks that litter the record from start to finish.
“Hooting and Howling” and “All the King’s Men” are the first two singles taken from Two Dancers. Thorpe handles vocal duties on the first, Fleming on the latter. “Hooting and Howling” is mocking, surly, and deadly serious. “We’re just brutes hoping to have a hoot,” sings Thorpe, snarling, without a sense of irony. But though he sings in the first person, he still somehow gives one the impression of an outsider, trying on the “lad” suit, the lout out on the town, hot on the heels of the ladies or birds or whatevers. The song’s lyrics act out a parody while the music delivers exactly the kind of brutish, carnal thrill that one chases into the night. The result is ambivalence, a judgment and affirmation of the desires behind the lust brigades.
“All the King’s Men” plays at the same game but more jovially. “Girls from Rodean/ girls from Shipley/ girls from Houndslow/ girls from Whitby,” sings Fleming, Thorpe yowling in the song’s recesses beneath him (nothing compared to the deep, bestial harmonies taken up between verses). The sexism expressed in the lyrics is, again, a kind of joke played straight faced, carried by the masculinity of Fleming’s voice. But the song itself strikes one as immediately gratifying, odd and wooly as it may be. You are drawn in (thoughtlessly) and then forced to think.
The kinds of tricks played by these songs are exemplary of what the Wild Beasts get up to (and do very well) on Two Dancers. They muddle things in sexual mischief (sex as gender, incorporeal forces, and physical acts). But the damn songs are full of firecrackers, bright little explosions that continually blind you and make you forget that what is being listened to is full of all sorts of undercurrents with the potential to suck you down at any time into their dark, entropic (but alluring) depths.
MP3: “All the King’s Men”