Last night I fell asleep with Wild Beasts’ Smother playing on my headphones and had a vivid erotic dream. WTF I hear you think. Well, a journalist friend told me this weekend that one of the first rules of writing an article, whether it is a review or reportage, is that you start with the conclusion. An article is not a detective story after all; no one is interested in a surprising twist at the end. Readers want to know if the record is any good straight off. The conclusion of this review is not that Wild Beasts’ third album is guaranteed to give you erotic dreams, but it might. And I did get your attention.
I’m gonna sound like a right prick, but when critics everywhere were tumbling over each other in praise of Two Dancers (2009), to me it was a disappointment. I loved the youthful ridicule of Limbo, Panto (2008) and felt that Wild Beast were growing up to soon, going all subtle and refined on us, when there was still plenty of time for that later. Of course, there wasn’t really. Wild Beasts had made the right turn, not only because continuing on Limbo, Panto’s path of theatrical outrageousness would have put them in a niche, they’d have a hard time getting out of, but also because popsongs aren’t journalistic articles. Suspense and suppression to a pop song is both the icing and the cake. On Smother there’s even more of it than on its sweltering predecessor. Much of it invigorated by the use of synthesizers in a way that emphasizes what’s not there, more than what is. References: Japan, David Sylvian, The Blue Nile and Talk Talk.
If Wild Beast’s debut was an orgasmic outburst, then their second and third albums are much like extended foreplay. This could also explain why, during Wild Beasts gig at the last edition of London Calling, the wild pogo’ers made way for a predominantly female audience. In my review of Limbo, Panto I already warned against playing Wild Beasts on a lad’s drinking night, unless you were planning to refurnish anyway. Four years later nothing much has changed, apart from Wild Beasts now being a household name. With two former appearances on London Calling, you could even call Wild Beasts the veterans of this edition. They are the odd ones out, though. When they enter the stage there is no sign of Britpop stoic or New York cool. Instead there is a gentleness that is perhaps best symbolized by guitarist Ben Little performing in his socks (and not even cool sock, but sock with colored stripes). It completes the picture of band that’s not out there to rock us till we drop, but to take us to secluded places we normally only travel alone or with a very close companion. The magic of Wild Beasts is that they manage to do so, without getting tacky or sentimental. They manage in their very own cool way.
The concert starts with drummer Chris Talbot setting in the intriguing percussive pattern of Plaything, one of the more blatantly suggestive songs of Smother. Although we never learn what it’s suggesting. The peculiar drum track reveals something to me (although it may have been going on for quite a while without me noticing). It’s that the roles have been reversed: before drum computers we’re desinged to approach the sound a live drummer, today many drummers, like Talbot, seem to be copying the sound of certain historic drum computers. Perhaps it’s out of nostalgia that I feel that the drums and percussion on Smother are outstanding, arranged with much care and attention, not to carry of drive the songs, but to be a prominent part of their identity. It reminds me of two albums in particular: the Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and The Hurting by Tears for Fears.
I will keep myself from glorifying every single instrument played on Smother, but a review of a Wild Beasts album is not complete without mentioning Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto. Even if it is not your taste you only have to listen to Bed of Nails, the album’s second track, to conclude that it’s time for all the Mika’s and Thom Yorks of the world to pack it up and leave, that guy from Everything Everything leading the way. Thorpe has only gotten better and as far as I am concerned only the late Billy Mackenzie has ever been better. Like Mackenzie, Thorpe’s high notes are impressive and clear, but his low notes are deep and sensuous and perhaps even more impressive. He can go from one to the other within a single breath. Even live in the Paradiso we cannot once catch him singing out of key. And if it’s not enough to have one extraordinary singer in the band, Wild Beasts, of course, have two.
In the studio as well as on stage the band have taken the beautiful contrast of voices, supplied by their two lead singers, Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, the to the next level. On stage the dichotomy is emphasized by their keyboards being placed head-to-head in the centre and the band going through a set that distributes the vocal chores almost evenly amongst the two. On the records, the evolution is that on Limbo, Panto the two singers were alternating, on Two Dancers they were complementing, on Smother they are doing both plus you get the feeling that they are commenting each other, telling the same story from a different perspective. Speculating on who holds which perspective and if it is real or adopted is best left to lonely teenagers, but in case they have better things to do, I’d say that Thorpe’s dominant perspective is ‘desire’ and Fleming’s is ‘longing’.
In reality it’s just one in a long list of mysteries adorning Smother, like: how does it create the impression being an intimate record, to be listened to between the sheets, when more than half of the songs are up-tempo? How can it not be Wild Beasts best collection of songs and still be their very best album? How can it induce erotic dreams in a heterosexual man, when it is full of unsavory rimes like: ‘Be blatant as a bailiff,I want my lips to blister when we kiss.’ I guess mysteries are an integral part of being from the lake district.
●●●●●●●●●○ 9/10 (and a half, if we did those)
Tip: Check this brilliant and fairly unkown track that could have inspired Smother.