Wild Beasts

Boy King

Make no bones about it: I was, for a time, in mourning. The problem with Wild Beasts’ insistence that they needed to kill the perfect group they’ve been for nearly 10 years and “become the band we’ve always objected to being” instead is that I wasn’t ready for them to die at all. And in some ways, the kind of songs they sing – sang – feel just as vital and important and necessary as they ever did. However mercilessly the phrase ‘man up’ is beaten into the ground today, mainstream culture’s ideas of what kind of a man you can actually be still feel clumsily reductive: you’re either a braying bantersaurus reading the Lad Bible and roaring in approval every time you hear the smash of a dropped pint glass or you’re meant to be on the other side, fighting against all that rowdy machismo with your clever books and your soppy sensitivity. There’s scant room for nuance or conflict in between.

But conflicts and contradictions have always been at the heart of Wild Beasts, right down to the way Hayden Thorpe’s shrieking falsetto and Tom Fleming’s deep, treacly rumble rub strangely up against one another. Ever since 2008’s debut Limbo, Panto, they’ve accepted that their swinging libidos have a knack of complicating everything; that desire makes you capable of being both devious and desirable, gallant and sleazy, romantic and ribald; that sex doesn’t have to be either just macho rutting or meek petting but instead a world of pervy thrills, sung about with a giddy, garrulous glee with highfalutin references to the Shelleys, Shakespeare and Hemmingway. If, as Thorpe, has often said, there’s a modern crisis in masculinity, Wild Beasts always seemed a band who can be clung to as a compass.

At first, then, listening to Boy King can feel like a betrayal. Recorded in Texas with St Vincent and Swans producer Jon Congleton, its garish neon-lit artwork, its dirty guitars and filthy synths, its thumping sleaze and priapic posturing and hairy-chested virility feel far ruder and cruder than ever before. If Wild Beasts’ old currency was erudite sauciness, they’ve cashed their chips in for something more one-note and luridly seedy: as that title suggests, many of its songs circle around the idea of men as spoilt and gluttonous children obsessed with feasting and fucking, while the band have spoken of wanting to mix the industrial thud of Nine Inch Nails with the smooth, sexy rattle of Justin Timberlake-style pop into one sticky gloop of noise. Witness, for example, the menacing throb of ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’, on which Thorpe lustily pants “Carnivores just want the dark meat” before it erupts into a caterwauling, cock-rocking guitar solo.

And yet with each further listen, it makes even more sense that they should embrace such a radical shift with such unreserved gusto. For all that their music is regularly fixated on all things carnal, Wild Beasts have always been less focused on objects of desire than the dangerous, all-consuming allure of desire itself, embracing the idea that you should throw yourself into each passionate clinch as if you’re surrendering to a black hole. It’s also true, too, that however brash this new incarnation might initially seem, it’s not sprung out of a vacuum. The Wild Beasts who transformed the fairly grim ritual of the British meat market into strangely beautiful, bawdy theatre essentially took their curtain call on Two Dancers; Smother was more concerned with the self-flagellation that follows lost love rather than the initial spark of friction, and 2014’s Present Tense found them increasingly willing to look outside their own Narnia-style universe to confront the world around them. That album also signalled a shifting in influences, too, with its debt to the more aggressive, electronic textures inspired by Oneohtrix Point Never and J Dillah. It’s those same building blocks that form the basis of Boy King, even if they’re taken in more extreme directions, whether it’s the woozy, wobbly beats of ‘Alpha Female’ or the droning, high-pitched buzz of ‘Ponytail’, which finds a weary Fleming claiming “I saw death up the skirts of the world”.

More pertinently (and this is a frequent ill when it comes to the conversation surrounding Wild Beasts), the focus on how Boy King is their filthiest album yet feels like a disservice – not because it isn’t accurate, but because it reduces it to an exercise in pure thigh-rubbing when these songs (as ever) are more complex: however sexily Thorpe purrs “take the collar off baby” on the sleek prowl of ‘Big Cat’, his breathy boast of “top of the food chain” a reminder that the power of preening alpha males comes at a cost (big cats, of course, are so hellbent on proving who’s boss they’ll kill the existing offspring of a new mate). On ‘2BU’, meanwhile, Fleming is cheered on by a whirring electronics as he sets off on a crusade, where romantic pursuit is warped into a thirst for conquer. “Bring me my mount and bring me my steel,” he commands, later half-begging, half-threatening: “I want your face/ I want your skin.” Both seem to be less tributes to big dick-swinging than they are dark warnings about the dangers of toxic masculinity.

It’s an idea explored further on the squalling guitars and blarting synth flashes of ‘Tough Guy’, in which Thorpe tries to disguise his feelings by squaring his jaw and stiffening his lip, so desperate to put a brave face on it he ends up tripping over his own vow of “Now I’m all fucked up and I can’t stand up/ So I better suck it up like a tough guy would.” The strutting funk of ‘Get My Bang’ compares the frenzy of Black Friday and our collective hard-on for consumerism with the irresistible urge to scratch a coital itch, with Thorpe coming on as a swaggering lothario until he’s rebuffed and resorts to whining “Why would you hold it back from me?”

All that being said, when Wild Beasts do get around to some more straightforward tupping, they go at it with gusto. ‘He The Colossus’ borrows its “Do I dare disturb the universe?” chorus from TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock’, but it’s more like an even naughtier, nastier take on ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (although perhaps Andrew Marvell would have found it far easier to worm his way into his sweetheart bedchamber if he’d ditched the iambic tetrameter in favour of the blunt “not enough fucking and too much wandering” used here). “I am no Bible binner, petty sinner or scandal spinner,” begins Thorpe over grinding, mucky synths like some monstrously lewd Byronic hero made evil, grinning flesh. “But you can stuff your chastity, your ‘not ready’, your ‘wait and see’.”

And yet even on this, their most rowdy and rambunctious album yet, there’s still room for a spot of tenderness. Closing track ‘Dreamliner’ is the spiritual cleanse after the slurry of sleaze, a hushed ballad that mixes brittle piano, swirling sounds and choral voices into a dreamy balm as Thorpe drops the bravado for vulnerability, repeating “begin again, begin again” as if he’s making confession for the horrors his rampant ego has loosed upon the world. They should consider themselves atoned: if the old Wild Beasts truly are dead, then I’m at peace with it. These boy kings are fit to reign in their stead.

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