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Wild Beasts’ greatest strength has always been that they didn’t have the common decency to start life in any trendy tastemaker city. As such their music to date has tended to sit more towards the literary,‘artistic’ end of the scale, resisting the influence of the zeitgeist-led output of musical hotspots. After the cabaret mayhem of debut Limbo, Panto, Two Dancers found the band tentatively flirting with the mainstream with ‘Hooting and Howling’, the ad-sanctioned ‘Underbelly’ and the small matter of a Mercury nomination. And so we arrive at Smother, with a world of expectation on its shoulders.
‘Lion’s Share’ kicks things off in suitably isolated form, perfectly-pitched instrumentation offsetting typically opera-gone-bonkers lyrics like “I take you in my mouth/Like a lion takes its game”. Hot on its heels, ‘Bed of Nails’ describes its recipient as ”like a lifeline Ophelia”, hinting at that tragic moment in any relationship when you realise it’s over, yet carry on anyway in one last-ditch, desperate attempt to leave your mark on a person. Possibly literally, if Thorpe’s intention to “be blatant as a bailiff/I want my lips to blister when we kiss” has anything to do with it. If you had any concerns that the band’s recent move to Dalston might have preened out everything that makes them interesting, herein lies a lyrical goldmine to allay those fears and then some.
‘Plaything’ is ‘Bed Of Nails’s evil twin, musing on the inherent selfishness of relationships driven by physical desires over emotional ones. Thorpe ponders, almost pontificates, on his treatment of the plaything in question: “wondering how cruel I’ve been”, with the underlying sense of not wanting to know the answer to the question while the going’s good. As in life, along this album’s shadowy landscape even shallow relationships are dotted with landmines.
By the time ‘Albatross’ rolls around, it should be obvious that Smother sits firmly within the current vogue for Songs About Unhappy Relationships. Tom Fleming’s mournful lament, in ‘Burning’, that “I’m afraid for my burning footprints on the floor/The things I don’t need anymore” signifies the acceptance that for all the time we spend collecting physical and emotional memorabilia of our relationships and lives, in the end none of it matters if you’ve lost the person they represent.
Speaking of Fleming, the vocals on Smother are something to treasure. There’s a wonderful balance between Thorpe’s forays into falsetto and Fleming’s booming bass. Wild Beasts are now a true two-frontman band, one singer’s vocal often being used to counter the other and shed a different light on the same event. When it comes to instrumentation, there’s no real attempt to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t matter; it makes the piano and guitar riffs, the complex basslines and marching drums all the more affecting when they meet.
There’s a lovely bridge in ‘End Come Too Soon’ that epitomises this approach: with no words, no spectacular flourishes, just all the respective instruments working perfectly together and Thorpe singing “la la la la la”, as simple as a lullaby. On paper it should only be a lull in the proper song, yet lands itself directly on your heartstrings; this album is jam-packed to burst with those moments. That’s before acknowledging the many perfect lyrics – far too many for one review - that somehow manage to encapsulate the vast complexities and vagaries of relationships in a few simple words.
It’d be reductive to try and describe a timeless album like Smother as a step up from its two predecessors, or even as a surefire Mercury contender - although it is, on both counts. It’s more heart wrenching, more life-affirming and more accomplished than those comparisons and plaudits could ever allow for. It’s an album for anyone who’s ever engaged in a relationship best defined as ‘it’s complicated’. Four words sum up the viewpoint of this album’s protagonist: ‘Loop the Loop’s ”I’ve made enough enemies”, sung with the resigned hangdog tone of someone who knows more enemies are yet to be made. Fortunately making enemies is really not something Wild Beasts need to worry about.
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