Unlike its claustrophobic title, at 40 minutes long, Wild Beasts’ third album Smother does not overstay its welcome. It’s confusing, though, because its ostentatious lyrics and elaborately crafted arrangements allude to something deeper and more sophisticated while offering little clue as to where it is heading in the short running time. It is difficult, then, to gain a real impression of what is intended by these efforts when the parameters of the project — time, mood, pace — are present but not particularly encompassing.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the theatricality doesn’t always work in their favor. Wild Beasts were at one point called Fauve, which is the French word for ‘wild beast,’ as well as designating the early 20th-century art movement. Their learnedness also comes through on tracks like “Bed of Nails,” with lyrics addressed to Ophelia that reach the heights of poetic fancy: “Surround me like a warm bath/ Send me up like an epitaph/ Be blatant as a bailiff/ I want my lips to blister when we kiss.” I have no problem with a bit of drama in music, or evidence of the scholarly education that went into it. After all, we music critics are here largely to preach to humanities graduates with too much time on their hands, are we not? Still, I would expect at least a mote of irony from the purveyors of sentiments this rich and baroque. If there is no irony, then let there at least be some element of risk to the performance, a hint of ballsiness. I’ll give them credit for the latter in Hayden Thorpe’s impressive falsetto — though it might seem anatomically misinformed, it takes ‘guts’ to be a glam front man. But as far as the former is concerned, I don’t see much evidence of it in the brooding attitude of the songs.
In fact, the dark textures and undeniably slick quality make the songs seem achingly appropriate for Skins, the TV series about teenagers who take themselves too seriously. Perhaps I’m just not getting it: Is this supposed to be excitable teen music? Is it supposed to be ‘sophisticated music’? Just because it’s all about the sex that young people have with each other doesn’t mean that it has to be clumsy and innocent. But I suppose people need this music, nowadays. Wild Beasts make urban electronic music for young people with complicated lives. They are as literate in the idioms of pop music as they are in the idioms of technology and relationships, and Wild Beasts provide a convincing amalgam of all of these things. At the very least, their blend is flawless, and just because the pain doesn’t show, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there underneath.
But the metaphorical dark circles are visible if you look closely enough. A lot of energy was evidently expended on making this record as polished as it is. Smother has already been placed on par with Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden, which is hyperbole, but what Wild Beasts have in common with later Talk Talk is their tendency to give appropriate space to the various elements in the mix. That space is found particularly on more impressionistic tracks like “Invisible” and “Burning.” The former is an especially fine track, simultaneously elegant and sad; taken by itself, it would justify all the ‘album of the year’ reviews that Wild Beasts have been getting in the UK. “Deeper” veers into borderline MOR territory with its sensitive vocals, lyrics about longterm love, polite piano, and crisp shrunken guitar. Still, there is something really craftsman-like about the calculated way that all these elements are selected.
“Reach a Bit Further” (aptly) is where the album seems to achieve the blend of romance, realism, and slickness that it’s aiming for. There is a hint of In Rainbows about the looping structure of the song, where call-and-response vocals replace the traditional hierarchies — not to mention the bell-like synths that seem to hail from the Amnesiac-era of Radiohead. (Suffice to say, these things sound pretty good.) It is an age-old dialogue between lovers that dramatizes one lover’s promise and the other’s doubts, making it seem portentous, while the flawless production reminds us that we are still sophisticated listeners who can relate these things to our own contemporary contexts. The track also employs both vocalists: Thorpe, the operatic tenor; and Tom Fleming the smoother, deeper voice. The two voices confuse the album’s intentions separately, but they work extremely well together, especially when singing sweet nothings to each other and creating the kind of Shakespearean ambiguity that the boys would surely be delighted to convey.
But overall, Smother seems to be missing purpose. I hear those careful ruminations on relationships, and I hear the pain that evidently went into this, but it leaves me cold. Perhaps it is because the attitude is arch but not particularly ironic, daring but uncommitted and dispassionate. Or maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe I’m just not living the experiences that the Wild Beasts describe or somehow not being initiated into those experiences through their music. I think I understand what Wild Beasts are aiming at: the studied, subtle, urban pillow talk of artists like The xx (a band they lost the Mercury prize to, so I feel a bit bad about raising the comparison). More than anything, however, this is pleasant music to soundtrack a life that I can’t imagine living, and that means that those intriguing ‘wild beasts,’ living their complicated lives by day and night, are still only mythical beasts as far as this listener is concerned.