Album Review: Wild Beasts – Smother

[Domino; 2011]

Where Wild Beasts excel has always been led down sex-stained lyrical corridors by arpeggiated chords and the patient prattling of percussion. On their third full-length release, the two singers still hold the show’s leading roles, and never before has that role been so prominent. As if they were in your bedroom after that booze-ridden booty call, the vocals are mixed ever-so-close and tender. So take note, ladies, these beasts are ready and willing to soundtrack your steamy nights.

The cooing come-ons of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming are saddled by legions of falsettos and trembling wails. It’s impressive, if exhausting by the album’s coda. “Burning” is all twinkling atmosphere that is likely to heighten any of your preexisting anxieties. A difficult move to pull off, but frankly not very interesting beyond the tension between the song’s creators and those it affects. In turn, this is escalated by the drifting nature of “End Come Too Soon,” their closest approximation of Talk Talk’s elegant, mountainous statements. In essence, Wild Beasts arrived at the end of “The Rainbow” and tried to encapsulate the same beautifully strung-out, start-stop dynamic their heroes had perfected by ’91. Unfortunately for them, the end can’t come soon enough. The vocals bob there like unanchored buoys in the ocean as a precaution for the band not to steer into darker, unexplored waters. Talk Talk walked us through an expansive scene that served as both a spiritual and musical awakening, but Wild Beasts are not a band that merits these grander gestures. At least they have failed to prove so thus far.

In contrast, Two Dancers was spry, sweeping the listener off their feet with ease. On “All the King’s Men,” Fleming took the spotlight with warm, brooding tones that would surprisingly shift immediately into shrieking and hooting like a Great Horned Owl. While “The Empty Nest” was also an underwhelming last ditch effort, it was easier to overlook given the abbreviated album and song length. Clever arrangements, escalating rhythms and those defining vocals earned them plenty of accolades and a Mercury Prize nomination last year.

Their songs best inhabit a still moment in time. “Bed of Nails” exists as a twisted paean to the sort of maddening love found in the pages of Hamlet. That moment of self-sacrifice, the ecstasy of total immersion in love and sex, and the monster this carnal commitment demands: it’s all there. The latter is fully explored when the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is erected and directly referenced. This is a heavy conceit for a pop song, and embodies Smother’s intent.

The band’s calculated restraint is commendable, opting to underscore rather than lift these songs out of the mire. It’s all about setting the mood. Throbbing tom-toms present the opening lyric on “Plaything,” which is another one of Smother’s standouts: “new squeeze, take off your chemise / and I’ll do as I please.” Slinky electronics are sprinkled throughout these songs, and minor flourishes crop up like the brass on “Invisible.” Much of it works despite how downcast the melodies can be, which open up mildly to allow the vocalists to dance around one another on the “shadowlurker” that is “Reach a Bit Further.”

Smother may lack the proper drive of Two Dancers, but it succeeds in whittling down what has become Wild Beasts’ motif. Namely, those vocals and the sexual themes they trot about. The result is captivating, even if it takes awhile to reach second base.