, May 9th, 2011 14:23
The trajectory from Wild Beasts' jittery and dramatic debut Limbo, Panto through the slinky sex grooves of Two Dancers to ultra-refined new album Smother has defied a central convention of modern pop logic: their popularity has continued to grow as their music has increasingly thrown off any regard for what the listener ought to desire. Which, when you consider that the group have become stranger and stranger over that period, is a real achievement in a world where pop choruses rely on hideously overwrought dynamics and radio-friendly production tricks. Playing all three records alongside one another reveals an ongoing process of refinement, of stripping away all excess fat and smoothing away all the edges to leave little but bone, sinew and heart. Jagged guitars had all but disappeared by the time of their last album, to be replaced with warm, undulating grooves that flowed like liquid, and now, with Smother, the value of silence as an instrument has fully informed their music. With it has come a sense of increased focus, something Two Dancers already showed no lack of.
But while that sort of approach might be expected to produce increasingly pop-friendly results, in Wild Beasts' case it's only served to highlight the sinister heart that beats at their music's core. Even at its most upbeat and obvious, the quartet's songs have always felt like reactions to a world largely desensitized to sex and violence, and the points at which the two intersect within modern society. Their lyrical imagery and delivery, whilst often passive in its aggression (sexual or otherwise) and deliberately gender-blurred, tends to point towards extremes – love as predatory act and controlling in nature, a far cry from romantic ideals. In Two Dancers' drug-fuelled opener 'The Fun Powder Plot' that was delivered in a chilling shriek: "This is a booty call / My boot, my boot, your arsehole". What makes 'The Lion's Share', its counterpart on Smother, even more unsettling is that Hayden Thorpe's delivery is calm and detached as he swoops in on the object of his desire: "I wait until you're woozy, I lay low until you're lame, I take you in my mouth like a lion takes its game".
In both these aspects Smother is a subtly transgressive album, even more so than Two Dancers. It's unmistakably a pop record, but musically it plays havoc with easy notions of what pop music should sound like in order to gain any sort of audience. And it's unmistakably an album about love, but its lyrical concerns are often taboo. Even as they're veiled in both Thorpe's and Tom Fleming's cryptic fondness for the literary, they touch on generally unmentioned darker sides to human relationships (both sexual and platonic) – exploitation, dependence, frustrated desire. That these concerns are set to the group's most subtly sensual arrangements to date heightens the contrast, and lays bare a tangible tension that fuels this excellent record. The gulf between 'The Lion's Share's tales of self-gratification and its sparingly pretty synth and piano arrangement, for example, couldn't be wider, and the same is true of 'Plaything's deeply unsettling chorus, "You're my plaything, you're my plaything / But I'm wondering what you're thinking". But it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that Smother is all dark side. Most songs here operate on several levels at once, and their beauty is to explore the push and pull of conflicted emotions, all the way from the immediacy of physical desire ("I would lie anywhere with you / Any old bed of nails would do", with Thorpe's partner as Ophelia on 'Bed Of Nails') to extending the arm of peace after an acrimonious split ("remember the olive branch" on album highlight 'Reach A Bit Further').
Compositionally too, the group take current pop trends and flip them on the head. Already this year we've seen no shortage of new artists offering what might be described as 'indie-friendly' takes on a huge variety of sounds, and increasingly the tendency has been to incorporate those many influences into songs that reference – but remain separate from – their parent genres. But one problem with many of these artists is that they (consciously or otherwise) invite direct comparison with the purer forms of the genres they're associated with, a fact that has occasionally given rise to accusations of appropriation and watering down. Salem's recreation of dirty south hip-hop in lo-fi, distortion-fucked form has attracted as much criticism as it has adulation, as has the sunken R&B of How To Dress Well and James Blake, as well as Jamie Woon's patchy soul-pop, which somehow ended up associated with dubstep despite its maker's insistence that it was anything but.
Wild Beasts are clearly well-versed in these genres and more; in the lead up to this album's release they've mentioned taking inspiration from artists as far apart as John Coltrane, Steve Reich and synth retrofuturist Oneohtrix Point Never, and the songs on Smother, in their delicate understatement, could certainly be said to form part of that grand lineage. (An interesting aside: Oneohtrix's Dan Lopatin owes a great deal musically to Reich, who in turn has stated more than once that Coltrane was a great inspiration on his own pieces.) And they're also steeped in soul and R&B, defined by a low-key sense of drama that only very occasionally tips over into the histrionics of yore. The rippling backdrop to 'Burning' lends it a desolate calm that could fit neatly onto Animal Collective's pastoral Feels. But rather than musically over-referencing any of the sounds that went into the making of Smother, its greatest strength is that is fully incorporates them all into a sound that couldn't be anyone other than Wild Beasts. The result is a sensuous and lithe, but very deliberate, style of songwriting: knowing, dark and subtly affecting. It's the knowledge Smother effortlessly conveys - everything is there because it needs to be, and because the band have decided it ought to be - that makes it Wild Beasts' finest album to date, and in turn makes them one of the UK's finest bands. Quietly though, of course.