The latest album by Wild Beasts favours synthesisers over guitars, but still hews to the themes of previous works – weekend wildness, love, passion and the magic of the moment, John Robinson writes.
Music for Friday nights
You join us in the centre of a provincial British town. It is night. The end of the working week has brought with it a certain amount of celebration and spirits are almost uncontrollably high. With whatever intention, somewhere a crude remark is made. This is overheard, misconstrued, and offence is taken. Soon, fists start to fly. Eventually the police will be called, arrests made, court fines issued.
Observing the scene from a discreet distance, you would, in 2008, have found the British group Wild Beasts. They were far from the first independent guitar group to write a song about the volatile social scene on Friday night on a British high street – the locale has provided inspiration for groups as diverse as Pulp, the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs – but no group had hitherto captured it in quite the way they managed in their song Hooting and Howling, a prominent feature on their Two Dancers album of 2009. “Any rival who goes for our girls will be left thumbsucking in terror,” they sang, “And bereft of all coffin bearers.”
Rivals? Thumbsucking? Bereft? Rather than merely an act of amusing reportage as – say – I Predict a Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs had been, Hooting And Howling seemed to take things a great deal more personally. “They’re just brutes,” Wild Beasts sang of the fighting weekend revellers, “looking for shops to loot …” If hell is other people, here the group had depicted its inferno. It was a great song, but it explored a wider social (and implicitly musical) horror.
Five years on, Hooting and Howling still plays like a manifesto. The song and the group defining itself by opposition: independent versus mainstream, aesthete versus herd, us versus them. Where there was brutality, Wild Beasts offered articulacy. Where there was violence, they offered a gently chiming musical delicacy. Where there was bullish machismo, Wild Beasts supplied a thrilling feyness: the devastating falsetto swoops of the song’s composer, Hayden Thorpe.
Not all Wild Beast songs are sung by Thorpe (those sung by his co-writer Tom Fleming have a doughty, careworn quality that will put many in mind of Elbow’s Guy Garvey). It is those sung by Thorpe, however, that seem the most challengingly unlike anything else. “It was my flag, my declaration to the world,” he recently said of this unique instrument. “I used it as a weapon rather than as a weakness.”
Weakness as weapon. It’s the independent-music ethos in a nutshell, and a hardcore of previously disenfranchised listeners has since rallied round Thorpe’s flag. With his voice as their compass, the band has, for eight years now, joyfully embraced its otherness, quietly hopeful they are speaking to a constituency of empathetic individuals.
Their fourth album, Present Tense, duly begins with the dark electronic fanfare of a song called Wanderlust, which seems to renew the band’s vows to itself. To indulge its whimsy, and to pay others no mind. This kind of independence won’t be easy, they know, but then theirs has always been a risky business. “We’re digging in beyond our means,” Thorpe announces, as a choir of synthesised voices mounts in intensity behind him. “We feel the things they never feel.” Wanderlust, he sings, “is a feeling I’ve come to trust …”
Paradoxically, this selective mission has in fact brought Wild Beasts closer to the mainstream than they must ever have thought likely. Two Dancers was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2010. In 2011, meanwhile, they remixed Lady Gaga’s song You and I – proof if any were needed that there exists a secret passage from the cutting edge to the mainstream. As Hayden Thorpe put it recently: “I think the ultimate goal for a creative person is to beautify something that is ugly.”
You wouldn’t call it concessionary by any means, but Smother, the band’s album of 2011 (which they toured for two years), found them largely abandoning their off-piste indie guitar jangling for a more easily assimilable synthesiser-led sound.
Still, their abandon remained undiminished on the album, if you knew where to look. Take the opening lines of Plaything: “New squeeze/Take off your chemise …”
From Kendal in the north of England, Wild Beasts have cultivated divisive responses since they formed in 2006. A band of rich vocabulary and throbbing passions, the band are odd as Morrissey and The Smiths were once thought odd – because they articulate a hitherto unheard voice.
Humorous, fleshy and lopsidedly funky, they have particularly marked out their differences in the way they write about sex. Indeed, in the fact that they write about it at all – a subject British guitar groups prefer to leave well alone.
Devil’s Crayon, from their debut album Limbo, Panto (2008) imagines a lover’s outline as being traced by an evil force, such is the obsessional power it exerts. More particularly characteristic is the wordy, amusing We’ve Still Got the Taste Dancin’ on Our Tongues from 2009’s Two Dancers, which includes the line: “Trousers and blouses make excellent sheets ….”
The band’s best compositions have immersed them in the sensation of the moment, and their efforts to write such songs – idiosyncratic, amusing, far from slick – seem like a valuable extending of the language that might be used to talk about sex and love.
Those kind of wordy and carnal high spirits are not, however, what you will be hearing much of on this album. Present Tense still has its adult content – but whereas previously Wild Beasts have made amusing and insightful hay in the world of anecdote, here they return to the laboratory to mull over their data and assemble their report.
Their findings are deep and nuanced, occasionally troubling. On Sweet Spot, one of the few guitar songs on the record, the group use imagery both luridly sexual and oddly religious as they contemplate a relationship. As well as any particular sexual connotation, here the “sweet spot” is the peak of a couple’s empathy – from here, the song implies, the only way is down. One particularly excellent track, reminiscent of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, again attempts to define a successful union: “How we feel now,” Hayden Thorpe sings, “Was felt by the ancients …”
In a nutshell, that’s what Present Tense is all about – about honouring and articulating the here and now, the present tense, the fleeting moment, whatever the future may hold.
On Palace, the final song on the album, the band give this moment actual architectural form. In the past, love has offered inhospitable lodging (“In the darkened house of love/I was sleeping rough/The bath ran cold”).
But now, they are visiting a venue for which they have paid their admission and studied the guidebook. It’s love viewed as a stately home excursion.
It’s a witty moment of reflection on an album that isn’t overrun by them. Fleming recently described Wild Beasts as having a “pretty/ugly” dynamic and that’s certainly the case here, the songs alternating between light and tuneful (those sung by Thorpe) and rather darker material (those sung by Fleming). Near the start of the album, with Nature Boy – in which the band personify the battle between body and mind – it works wonderfully. Clouds quickly gather with Daughters, which recounts the bizarre biblical story of Lot, whose daughters conceived by him so that his line might continue. By the time we reach A Dog’s Life – in which indignities are heaped on the titular, metaphorical canine – the Fleming songs have become a little oppressive.
Some might well mourn the band’s gradual progression from florid, guitar-based naturalism to this more impressionistic way of writing, in which synthesiser textures are the dominant force. True enough, the band as depicted here feel like an infinitely more serious and marketable concern than previously. But that would be to miss Wild Beasts’ larger point on Present Tense. In love and relationships, change is inevitable. Why wouldn’t that also be the case for music? For all the light and shade it offers, the best song on the album is also the most guileless. A Simple Beautiful Truth – sung by Thorpe and Fleming in tandem – celebrates love in its simplest essence: a solution reached, an equation balanced, a reason to believe. It’s a succinct, beautiful tune, an accessible mainstream pop song the like of which we’ve not heard the band deliver before.
It’s an unexpected development, perhaps. But such is the band’s unique flavour, their people will always seek it out wherever it appears. That may mean doing so at home in private. It may even eventually come to mean in the town centre.
John Robinson is the associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.