Well then. I can’t remember the last time an album got such universally positive reviews as Wild Beasts’ superb third record, ‘Smother’. After scanning a good dozen reviews this morning (disclaimer: online only), it doesn’t seem to have won less than a 4/5 or 9/10 anywhere. And rightly so.
I bagged the chance to review the Cumbrian saucepots’ third for NME, and gave it 9/10. It feels a bit weird to quote my own review, so I’ll just say it’s without a doubt my favourite album of the year so far – the lyrics are exquisite, and there’s a very loose, alluded-to sense of blanketed narrative throughout, which is proof of what delightfully smart lyricists they are. And of course, it sounds beautifully rude, which is always a boon.
It’s been interesting to read different critics’ interpretations of the lyrics. I particularly enjoyed Krystina Nellis writing at Drowned In Sound, who also gave the album 9/10. In an almost as succinct and lovely way as the Beasts themselves put it, she states that “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.”
‘Smother”s sad sincerity is one of its most appealing traits, turning away from the brilliantly bawdy observations of sex that littered ‘Two Dancers’ to an extreme, high tension intimacy whose closest ally might lie in The xx’s debut. Mike Diver, writing for the BBC, called opener ‘Lion’s Share’ “a simple, seductive song that opens an album which, largely, continues in a similar vein: here lies mystery, romance, tall tales told by men who surely wouldn’t just make this stuff up. It’s there in their eyes, the reality of the experience and the sincerity of their stories.” He closes by remarking “if this doesn’t secure Wild Beasts another Mercury Prize nomination, it’d be a travesty for British pop. They are, right now, the most inspirational, intriguing, effortlessly enrapturing band at work on these shores. And Smother might well prove to be the album of 2011.” Amen to that.
It’s not all moping around though – there are moments of carnal falsetto that’ll set your knees all a-quiver, as The Guardian’s Dave Simpson pointed out in his 4/5 review: “Thorpe remains risqué – there are lines such as “I take you in my mouth like a lion takes his prey” and “Take off your chemise, I’ll do as I please” – but mostly the sexuality is understated.”
And sometime NME scribe Kev Kharas, writing in the Stool Pigeon (who award ‘Smother’ four out of five pigeons), notes than “when later [Hayden] admits, resigned, that he’s “made enough enemies”, it’s clear that these are the words of a man who’s lost all trust in his libido. And thank fuck for that. A loyal libido makes for Marti Pellow, Mario Winans, middle-age and mediocrity. It makes for shitty albums. Smother is a marvel, made by men who seem to have realised that the tail they’ve been chasing all these years is their own.”
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Somewhat bizarrely, The Line Of Best Fit’s Jamie Milton says that the “lyrics are, as always, evocative and itching with lust.” That seems to conjure up images of slightly painful STIs rather than tempered eroticism, but not to bother – he rightly concludes that “Wild Beasts are still in a process of fervent discovery, yet to find a ‘comfort zone’ – which is an entirely good thing.”
Narrowing the focus to ‘Smother”s musical leanings – the band professed to being inspired by Talk Talk and Oneohtrix Point Never when making this album – Arwa Haider made an astute observation: “In a year that began with the music industry’s desperate (and mostly underwhelming) search for a macho guitar band revival, there’s something exhilarating about the early summer return of Cumbrian quartet Wild Beasts, a guitar band that has never really been reined in by rock’n’roll convention.” Haider also commented on Wild Beasts’ “exotic air”, an interesting and understandable point about a band that has long been defined by their English prurience and propriety, which seems to relate to comments Hayden made in last week’s NME – that there’s “no dignity to sex or masculinity in Great Britain“, thus making these chaps the covetable antidote to all that “hooting and howling”…
The Independent’s Andy Gill also gives the record 4/5 (can you see a theme emerging here?), and picked up on its Talk Talk-isms in ‘Deeper’, “where the intimate little flicks and shudders of sound coalesce delicately into a gentle momentum that avoids settling into any familiar song structure.”
In his mighty fine review for The Quietus, Rory Gibb points out that despite these influences, ‘Smother’ conveys a sound that’s very much the Beasts’ own: “The result is a sensuous and lithe, but very deliberate, style of songwriting: knowing, dark and subtly affecting. It’s the knowledge ‘Smother’ effortlessly conveys – everything is there because it needs to be, and because the band have decided it ought to be – that makes it Wild Beasts’ finest album to date, and in turn makes them one of the UK’s finest bands.”
Heather Phares at All Music picked up on the appropriateness of the record’s title in relation to its sound, stating that it’s “perfectly chosen, evoking stifled cries and what it’s like to be so suffocated with want that only whispers come out.” Her final comments are bang on too. “Anyone who loved Two Dancers won’t be disappointed, and anyone who felt alienated by Wild Beasts before just might want to give them another chance — this is an album about desire that leaves listeners wanting more.” ‘Smother’ is addictive, and obsessive – I listened to it forty times in the first 10 days of having it…
So, after all those critics’ adoring adjectives, what do you make of ‘Smother’? Are Wild Beasts, as many have posited, one of Britain’s greatest, more forward-thinking guitar bands? After the delicious rambunctiousness of ‘Two Dancers’, is ‘Smother’ a tad sombre in comparison? Let us know your thoughts below.
(PS: I always read the comments looking for those possessed of astute observation and a fine way with words just in case we might be able to pilfer you for regional coverage… So dot those Is and cross those Ts, mmkay?)