In The Company Of Wolves: Wild Beasts Live

John Calvert gets hot under the collar at an intimate gig at the Lexington from Wild Beasts, as they play their great album Smother and a load of other fruiter bangers. No other band does sex quite like they do, he argues

Photo by Valerio Berdini

In the company of wolves, and Wild Beasts are nothing if not wolves, it’s the sweetest tongue which hides the sharpest tooth. They flatter to deceive, do the Kendal boys. Because behind Smother‘s abject musical sweetness… all the better to seduce you with my dear… reside the dark appetites of men at the mercy of the killer in them. Over bracken peak and Cumbrian fell they come, sartorial and elegant, eloquent and sophisticated, not to mention a bit bushy round the mid-eyebrow region, to feast on the fair maidens of Wetherspoons come chucking out time. From there to a thousand interchangeable bedrooms, where terrible deeds are performed under the light of a full moon. "In the dead of night", as Neil Jordan’s Freudian cock-horror proclaimed, "the beast is unleashed!!!" Mwahh ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!

Of course, in the end, it’s the man inside the monster that really fascinates. On Smother‘s opener ‘Lion’s Share’, Hayden Thorpe recounts a drunken shag in pseudo-Wordsworth prose style. At the song’s midpoint the narration switches from Thorpe’s address to her (i.e. the still-warm prey, i.e. the lion’s share) to his thoughts to himself. ‘It’s a terrible scare" he says, waking boozily to the shock of her presence "…but that’s why the dark is there / So you don’t have to see what you can’t bear: the lion’s share." And, in what at The Lexington tonight is one of many soul piercing moments, there’s something desperately sad about Thorpe’s vaudevillian delivery of the song’s final realisation: "Boy what you running from / Boy… what you running from?" It’s only bettered in epiphanic poignancy by the weary addict’s regret of ‘Loop The Loop’, the highlight of the set. Thorpe, taking stock of this endless succession of women and this self-destructive cycle of lust and gratification, asks himself: "Forget now, how many must I forget now?" The answer being "Remember….as many as I remember.." These woman are the ghosts that linger on his crumpled bedsheets. And they are many in number. And he remembers each and every one. That’s a lot of sleepless nights right there. In both senses.

You see, Smother is about shame. If Two Dancers was sexual hunger in full balletic motion, its successor is the scattered devastation that follows. The men are seen unravelling with the inexorable groove that spans the album – both the momentum of sexual compulsion and the motor for a journey of self realisation. They are are cornered by desire, bad memories and self-inflicted loneliness, playing devotional songs that are part prayerful atonement for their misadventures and part confessional: soul-bearing pleas for that which eludes them – intimacy, or rather the ability to accept intimacy.

In a live setting, with last year’s remarkable Mercury-snubbed classic played in its entirety, we get the Beasts in that most un-beastly of positions: the missionary. We get to listen again, after a year’s grace, to the shame of it all, and the harm that it causes. "Come closer," Tom Fleming says early on "I want to feel you on my eyeballs."

There’s something of the poet-class northernness of bygone days to Wild Beasts’ pseudo-Victorian aesthetic – all that humble luxury and earthy refinement. But what sets this most thoroughbred of indie bands apart from the mock-antiquated likes of The Decembrists and of course the potato famine-chic Mumfords is their throughly modern disposition. There’s a psychological acuteness, intelligence and a lyrical approach that’s more morally ambiguous than is common to delicate British indie, which usually concerns the fundamentally narcissistic, fundamentally simplistic pursuit of conveying melancholy, as opposed to analysing it.

This translates live as a deft, mercurial and mysterious set, possessed of many emotional layers and shrouded in a beautifully shimmering, air-distorting mist of auroral musicianship; more light than sound. It’s something you don’t quite hold in your hand so much as feel as a silken crispness around the glands. Everything is weightless, from the soft (and just perfect) volume levels, to Thorpes’ gentle girlish speaking voice, to the silvery synth sounds – generating together a sodden aqueous sensuousness fully evocative of tender sex and wet touching; the two dancers sucking and swallowing, licking and tonguing and kissing, in and out of bodies. He drinks hers, takes her into him… all those moist necks and sweat-brushed cheeks in the dawn light. It’s rare you find an indie band compelled to make sense of the world through the prism of desire. The Beasts however, who use sex as a springboard into the most complex of philosophical ruminations, are the first masters of the approach in years.

Fleming and Thorpe’s lead vocals play off each other in divine ways, like two sides of the same heart – the feminine and the masculine. Their perfect voices (miraculously better than on record) – Fleming’s noble alto-tenor and Thorpe’s falsetto vibrato – effuse improvised harmonies, intertwining in ways that impose new meanings on the songs. A far more slight, subtle sound live, all the fight is gone, leaving only a sunken sigh of resignation as if the men have long since succumbed to their urges. Watching them stare at one another across the synths, what’s clear is that the men still relish the interplay a year on, with an almost entranced bliss. It’s a performance that’s vaguely homoerotic, most certainly loving and resolutely symbiotic.

After it’s all over, the crowd are treated to a half-hour set of back catalogue tunes, from ‘Fun Powder Plot’ to ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ to ‘We Still Got The Taste…’ and finishing with ‘All The King’s Men’; each sounding amazingly fresh. The Smother set, however, concludes with ‘End Come Too Soon’, and quite simply it’s beautiful. From out of the Reichian piano emerges the brilliantly mounted Lopatin-esque rise – a listless midsection during which the rest of the band crouch on the ground as Thorpe teases crystalline waves from his kit. Time stands still as, finally, he howls at the moon "A yay-oh / A yay-oh / End come too soon" like a draggy Hamlet. Only Wild Beasts could make a song about premature ejaculation sound so tragic. His devastation that the hit is over already, and the creeping advance of that grim post-coital reality embodied in the song’s falling and deflating coda, makes an orgasm seem like a bereavement.

Channelling a strong regional identity in a banally post-geographical landscape, and possessed of the self-belief to be unashamedly intelligent, high-minded, hard working and suave in an era anti-professionalism and designer pauperism, Wild Beasts are the louche E-Type Jag of British guitar bands. If only a guilty conscience was as easy to clean as that sex-soiled leather interior.  

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