When Wild Beasts gave us Limbo, Panto in 2008, its earnest theatricality immediately set the Kendal quartet apart from their indie rock contemporaries. Deploying the contrast of two vocalists (Hayden Thorpe’s coarse falsetto and Tom Fleming’s more standard register) and drawing from the vaudeville and the picaresque, Limbo, Panto described life (and sex) in the North-West with characteristically flamboyant panache. Thorpe crooned in ‘Woebegone Wanderers’: ‘Unstable stands a-flush with fans, pilfered piles and pints in wobbly hands,’ while whispering on ‘She Purred, while I Grrred’ that ‘her fruit was ripe, I bit, I’m nothing more than a humble mongrel, whipped cast, rash and unabashed.’ Follow-up Two Dancers upheld this lyrical ingenuity, but toned down the melodramatic excesses of its predecessor to great critical accolade, including a Mercury Prize nomination. But in so doing – to this reviewer at least – it showed signs of losing the singular aesthetic of the debut.
Smother, I fear, continues this trend. Wild Beasts’ fascinating exploration of fragile masculinity is still present, but the lyricism is far more conventional – no more depictions of the bar fights as ‘bovver boot ballets’. The record features cleaner production, and sparser instrumentation, but ultimately this allows for a far more atmospheric record, and leaves greater room for Thorpe’s still striking vocal ability. Smother is the product of a greater maturity, and the grooves, though darker, are often just as undeniable.
‘Lion’s Share’ couples Thorpe’s haunting voice with a sinister piano backing, while the masterful ‘Bed of Nails’ conveys a sense of unfulfilled lust with stalking bass and shuffling drums. In ‘Burning’, Fleming’s shaky, despairing vocals gradually sink into the mix until they are enveloped by a growing wall of sound. Whether or not one applauds the jettisoning of youthful extravagance for greater sobriety, Smother must be commended as another excellent release from the ever-impressive Wild Beasts.