Wild Beasts have always been about two things: producing meticulously crafted indie rock that fuses smooth electronica with intelligent guitar composition, and exploring the darker side of sexuality through lyrics blue enough to make a porn baron blush. The former of these two ambitions was taken to its logical conclusion by 'Present Tense', a gossamer-light tapestry of a record that's lack of a Mercury Prize nomination was a miscarriage of justice worthy of the South Yorkshire Police Department.
But the real challenge for Hayden Thorpe and company would not be catching the eye of some half-deaf judging pane. Instead it would be surpassing themselves creatively on their next effort. So it is that, on 'Boy King', the band have chosen not to create a further work of compositional wizardry to rival 'Present Tense' and elect instead to focus implicitly on the one essential aspect of their DNA that it's predecessor lacked: their collective, frighteningly engorged libido. Consider this album NSFW unless your work involves a significant amount of nudity and erotic dancing. Or you work from home. Or both.
Ever since 'Limbo, Panto' band leaders Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have looked towards the more feminine side of sexuality for inspiration, conveying through song the female body's traditional expectation of suppressed 'properness' in public with its capacity for infinite waves of climactic pleasure in private. But here the alternate restraint and release of the fairer sex's carnal desires are passed over in favour of the altogether more overt and messy desires of man. Those animalistic impulses that come involuntarily, part of that pesky Y-chromosome package that we can dial down but never truly silence. The resulting album is correspondingly brash, dirty and prone to shoot its load.
Muscular singles 'Boy King' and 'Get My Bang' ripple over throbbing, urgent basslines while 'Alpha Female's chorus refrain (“Alpha Female I'll be right behind you”) is the kind of unsubtle innuendo that might be offered with a smirk by that prick at the bar buying drinks for whichever girl he deems to have the lowest self-esteem. The presence of Tom Fleming’s guitar is more aggressively explicit than ever before, aided by his purchase of a big fuck-off white Jackson guitar (a make generally favoured by the likes of Machine Head’s Phil Demmel and Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith) for studio shredding purposes. The coiled solo that springs to life part way through ‘Tough Guy’ would absolutely ruin a song from any of their previous albums. Now it sounds as natural as nakedness to them.
If the romantic 'Smother' was a classy restaurant date followed by champagne-fuelled lovemaking on a bed of roses, 'Boy King' is a grubby fingerbang on a dimly lit dancefloor followed by a blowjob in the disabled toilets. Lyrics about “virgin killers” and “safe words you can’t retract” only enhance the sense of abject filthiness that envelops the record like a stiff, stained duvet. Occasionally it becomes a little much. The ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ vibe the band purposely create on ‘Boy King’ is paper-thin compared to the rich and complex sensitivity its predecessors wielded. When the delicate, heartwarming ‘Dreamliner’ glides in to finish the album, you can’t help but wish that the band had indulged their softer side a little more over it’s runtime.
There is also a definite sense that Wild Beasts have elected to place ego over quality control when it comes to the track listing. Sideman Tom Fleming is a very able writer and singer, previously contributing album highlights such as ‘Daughters’ and ‘Deeper’ to ‘Present Tense’ and ‘Smother’ respectively. Here, however, his songs ‘2BU’ and ‘Ponytail’ play definite second fiddle to the playful yet powerful compositions of Hayden Thorpe. Thorpe’s willingness to forsake his beloved falsetto in favour of a more masculine moan also encroaches on the territory usually reserved for Fleming’s gruff baritone, leaving him with little to do but add the odd harmony and keep his eyes on his dexterous fretwork. Given that his fingers now seem to be blessed with cock rock god virtuosity, this seems a fair trade off.
Rock-hard and sloppy in equal measure, ‘Boy King’ is a creature of base instinct from a band of high intellect more used to drawing their songs from their frontal lobes than their testes (even if their lyrics often suggest otherwise). I don’t think even Wild Beasts would consider this their best album, and maybe somewhere down the line they can have a real crack at surpassing their magnum opus ‘Present Tense’. For now they’ve made the right call by following their pricks along a whole new avenue of sound and attitude, one that injects a real sense of playfulness into a band who were in danger of gaining ‘maturity’.
Words: Josh Gray
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