It’s rare to find a band whose growth into maturity is so overt and easily traceable as Wild Beasts. The quartet emerged wide-eyed and dripping wet from the Lake District in the mid-00s, a blinking quartet of long-haired teens with a penchant for silliness. Cut forward ten years and they are the sleek, self-assured creators of ‘Get My Bang’ and ‘Big Cat’, two well-crafted slices of pop-soul that wouldn’t feel out of place at the tail end of a Boiler Room set.
Their only constants over this decade of transformation have been the vocal yin and yang of frontman Hayden Thorpe’s soaring falsetto and Tom Fleming’s gruff baritone, along with (unusually for a white English indie act) an overt fixation with sex. Not the shallow, sweatless sex of a vintage R Kelly video, but the dance of carnal desire as old as the hills the Kendal boys hail from.
So, with courage, conviction and donkey-jaw diction, let us trace the leafy, lust-raddled path Wild Beasts took to reach ‘Boy King’...
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‘Limbo, Panto’ (2008)
With song titles such as ‘She Prrred While I Grrred’ and ‘Brace Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’, 'Limbo Panto' could have easily been dismissed as a one-off novelty from a bunch of English eccentrics in dire need of a cold shower and a wee lie down. But behind Thorpe’s initially off-putting squeaking there is a rough wood carving impression of the sonic tapestry they would later learn to weave.
There’s something wonderfully rural about this record. In an era where the Wombats were moving to New York and Bloc Party were spending a weekend in the city, ‘Limbo Panto’ sounded for all the world like attending a village fete only to run into the fellow guests from the swingers party you attended the night before.
There’s a folkish sensibility to the explicitness of the lyrics, a combination of naturalism and naturism that bands like alt-J and Glass Animals will most likely spend their entire careers agonisingly trying to recreate. Also present in the mix even at this early stage was a kind of rakish intellectualism that allowed them to liberally employ the term ‘cuckold’ outside of an English Lit lesson in a manner few of their contemporaries could have pulled off.
Sauciest line: “With wantingly wet mouth I suck, Remind me of your gentle fuck” – ‘Vigil For A Fuddy Duddy’
‘Two Dancers’ (2009)
The peculiar indie raunch of their debut was reworked and fully realised on what would prove to be Wild Beasts’ breakthrough album. Topping a host of end-of-year lists, ‘Two Dancers’ set the bar for everything the band would go on to record by pairing their unique Englishness (I still can’t listen to ‘The Fun Power Plot’ without picturing Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men jerkily dancing along) with multi-layered math rock wizardry.
If its predecessor evoked the countryside eccentrism of a summer fete, this was a fast-forward to the village Guy Fawkes Night: all late-night dodgems and sticky stolen kisses after a daylong candyfloss binge. Thorpe and Fleming’s sense of fun only blossomed as they took themselves more seriously musically. ‘All The Kings Men’, that loveably lecherous paean to every girl from Roedean to Whitby, remains the band’s greatest humalong at live shows, while ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues’ amasses gallons of groove underneath Thorpe entering full seduction mode, crooning wistfully about alcopop juice dripping down girls’ legs.
It could be said that their rough edges were smoothed out rather too much. The title track is pretty but po-faced while the dreamy keyboard outro of ‘Underbelly’ is now irrevocably synonymous with that Santander advertising campaign. But shedding some of their early silliness was essential to the bands longevity, their switch towards more level-headed atmospherics winning them over a whole new flock of fans to ensure their longevity. Did you listen to Young Knives’ ‘Sick Octave’? No? Exactly.
Sauciest line: “His hairy hands, His falling fists, His dancing cock, Down by his knees” – ‘Two Dancers’
Given Thorpe and Fleming’s penchant for employing the full holster of poetic devices at their disposal when writing (I challenge you to find a Wild Beasts’ song that doesn’t feature assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia or some combination of the three), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the band met at Oxford rather than a small school in Cumbria. So it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that on their third album they successfully hit the target they’d always set themselves by sounding like the missing link between the Foals and Radiohead.
‘Smother’ is an album for perfectionists. There’s nary a drum tone out of key or budding synth wobble out of place across the whole twelve tracks on display. Every scribble is carefully rubbed out to be replaced by a straight line. After the organic joy of the first two records it can seem to occasionally verge on the sterile side; but focus on the beautiful cascading pianos of ‘Lion’s Share’ and ‘Albatross’ (possibly the most hauntingly beautiful thing they’ve ever released) and you realise that this is the crisp, fresh sterility of untouched winter snow rather than the cold, dead sterility of a doctor’s surgery.
The lyrics, while still very much NSFW, take on a more giddily romantic bent than the orgy-ready lewdness of their predecessors. Take ‘Bed of Nails’, the most Valentine mixtape-ready of the tracks on offer. Thorpe entices the listener to "surround him like a hot bath" and explains that he "wants his lips to blister when we kiss" until all you want to do is go have a cold shower and a wee lie down…
Sauciest line: “New squeeze take off your chemise, And I'll do as I please” (Phwaorrrr…) – ‘Plaything’
‘Present Tense’ (2014)
While restraint was the name of the game on ‘Smother’, ‘Present Tense’ saw the Kendal boys taking the production skills they had honed and putting them to work building something spectacular. With minimalistic fastidiousness flung out of the closest window and the last vestiges of math rock shrugged off, the band were free to pursue a more fluid form of writing closer in sound to the slinky RnB of Miguel than it was to the swashbuckling hoot and howl of their youth.
Central to this album is the nuanced layering of warm synth waves by both Fleming and actual keyboardist Ben Little. Wild Beasts had never really been a guitar band in the traditional sense of the word, but ‘Present Tense’ saw them consciously disassociating their output from their prodigious ability as musicians. From the towering progression of ‘Wanderlust’ to the subdued funk of ‘Past Perfect’, every song seems to allow a central melody to hook it by the nostrils and drag it through myriad twists and turns in a manner only pure stream-of-consciousness songwriting can achieve.
Just as the band’s sonic palette expands drastically on this album, so does the subject matter. Spiritual and religious analogies are scattered liberally to contribute to the album’s sense of grandeur. ‘Daughters’ takes paternal protectionism to its creepy conclusion by referencing the Old Testament tale of Lot and his incestuous offspring while ‘Mecca’, as the title suggests, conveys the ecstasy of surrender inherent to the passage of pilgrimage. The raunchiness might be turned down on this record, but the band’s lyrical obsession with obsessive desire has never been louder.
The downside (or upside, depending on your preference) to the direction they took on this album is that the band no longer sounded like the out-of-town strangers riding into town to sell their exotic rural wares. Where once they sounded endearingly naïve, the Wild Beasts of the present are streetwise: leaders in their field rather than outsiders in a world of their own. The urban glow of ‘Boy King’s singles look to continue this trend. But only a fool would attempt predict the course of a ship like Wild Beasts’. Better to have another shower and wee lie down instead.
Sauciest line: “Proud woman I daren't come passively, Every fella deserves his dignity” – ‘Past Tense’
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Wild Beasts will release new album 'Boy King' on August 5th.
Words: Josh Gray