It’s a very rare thing in pop; for a band to release an excellent debut record is commendable, to follow it up with an outstanding sophomore record is then a tremendous achievement but for a band’s third record to be arguably their greatest work is a remarkable feat.
Well, this is just what Kendal’s pop eccentrics Wild Beasts have achieved with “Smother”.
“Smother” is the culmination of a triptych of albums that have established Wild Beasts as one of the UK’s most interesting, progressive and exciting bands and, like it’s predecessors “Limbo, Panto” and the Mercury nominated “Two Dancers”, it is an album rich in florid lyrical wit and wordplay, subtle grooves and subversive pop hooks.
“Smother” , however, is the record which best captures Wild Beasts whole musical oeuvre. They have always been a unique band, never bound to one style or musical convention and characterised by the phenomenal swooping voice of Hayden Thorpe, sometimes sweet and angelic, sometimes a low guttural growl. “Smother” again sees Thorpe’s voice to the fore but the growls and yelps are for the most part eschewed in favour of a deep low hum or a beautiful falsetto. The vocal restraint, rather than being a hindrance, actually fits the mood and sound of the record perfectly and is a testament to Thorpe’s skill as a vocalist.
Throughout the course of their previous two records Wild Beasts have created their own unique world full of ribald sex, romanticism and classically English eccentricity. “Smother” pushes these themes further and deeper.
Opener “Lions Share” is ushered in by balletic piano and Thorpe’s quivering bare voice and establishes the dark sensuous, sexual undercurrent that underpins the record: “I wait until you’re woozy, I lay low until you’re lame, I take you in my mouth like a lion takes it’s game”
The nature of relationships and desire is investigated further in contrasting styles in both “Deeper” and “Plaything” the former is a heartfelt (in Wild Beasts terms) ode to a relationship and new beginnings beautifully crooned by the warm baritone of bass player Tom Fleming who again provides a perfect counter to the flamboyant vocals of Hayden Thorpe: ,“Deeper, deeper, the smile across my face, deeper, deeper, the fires inside you race” The later is an altogether darker example of explicit desire: “New squeeze, take off your chemise, and I’ll do as I please.”
There is no other group in the UK who can tackle such themes without sounding crass and crude and Wild Beasts characterise their treatises on sex and carnal desires with an esoteric charm all underpinned by their evocative wordplay. No indie musicians have been so adept at discussing matters of the heart since Morrissey.
What strikes you most when listening to “Smother” is how exceptionally coherent and measured it is. The pace rarely goes beyond sedate but the instrumentalism is perfectly paced and realised and there is not one ounce of fat on the record, nothing sounds out of place. Credit must be given to guitarist Ben Little and drummer Chris Talbot for their exceptionally unobtrusive but meticulous playing. You may think that an album as one paced as this may be a tad boring but after repeated plays it still remains utterly captivating and compelling. This is an album of hidden treasures and subtle pleasures.
Anyone who is looking for pop thrills and a hit single in the vein of “Hooting and Howling” will be sated by the glorious “Reach a bit Further” A duet between the contrasting vocal talents of Thorpe and Fleming it is an undoubted album highlight, the propulsive drums, throbbing, humming synths and twinkling guitars combine to lovely effect with the best chorus of the record. This has to be a single.
In recent interviews Wild Beasts have spoken of their relief at losing out in last years Mercury Prize and not having to carry the burden of the poisoned chalice of the Mercury’s, well with “Smother” they have made such a staggeringly good record that it may well be impossible for the Mercury judges to deny them a second time around. They better get ready to accept that chalice. Wild Beasts have firmly established themselves as the best band in the UK and a perfect example of innovative, progressive, idiosyncratic British music.