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Album review: Wild Beasts - 'Two Dancers'
In a year of not-difficult-at-all second albums comes the most surprising of all
Making the strange seem normal is the most accomplished act of artistic alchemy. Any idiot can try to be weird; most will just end up being depressingly inane. But to take something as wonderfully, magically strange as Wild Beasts’ debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ and sublimate its elements into something as subtly beautiful as ‘Two Dancers’ is something very special indeed.
The ‘look at me!’ theatricality of Hayden Thorpe’s swoops and screeches, the poetic flourishes and jarring incongruities of the lyrics, the olde-world historical scenes… well, they’re all still there. But Wild Beasts Phase Two is less vaudevillian and a lot more lyrical.
The clever-clever playfulness of ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ and ‘Please Sir’ is left aside in favour of a more mature, immersive and organic sound. Taking its jump-off point from the most refined song on ‘Limbo, Panto’, ‘The Devil’s Crayon’, this is an album that takes your heart by sleight of hand rather than ambush.
The counterpoint between the neurotic, lascivious thrill of Thorpe’s falsetto and bassist Tom Fleming’s impossibly rich, sonorous, northern tones is delicious. It’s like listening to Ted Hughes read poetry in the drawing room while Maria Callas has a breakdown in the kitchen. The fact that these intriguing set-pieces are put to music this gorgeous is double the wonder. At one moment, an aching melancholy of word and tone conjoin, the next a horrific image sings out in a beautiful voice.
The other thing that’s so compelling about ‘Two Dancers’ is that it really is a cohesive album. Many pay lip service to the idea of the album in an age of downloading, but here is one where to skip a track feels like sacrilege. From the propulsive, Blue Nile-ish beauty of ‘The Fun Powder Plot’, a deft exploration of the rage of fathers denied custody, to the almost Panda Bear-like lullaby ‘Empty Nest’, each feels like a dream-like, disconnected scene in an abstract play you don’t quite understand but that touches you in strange ways.
The two-piece title track is grim and gorgeous in equal measure. Recalling the tense drama of Associates and the strange emotional scapes of late Smiths and early Suede, it paints a picture that seems to be set in some nightmarish ancient ransack, all gang rape, poverty and broken families. The line, “Oh, do you want my bones/heart between your teeth” recurs in the second section, depicting a broken relationship haunted by the genetic ghosts of violent history.
‘All The King’s Men’, meanwhile, runs through the courtship ritual, Fleming wryly grouping “girls from Roedean, girls from Shipley” in a dizzy array of belles of the ball, before reducing them to sex (“girls astride me, girls beneath me”) and then “birthing machines” in a caddish exploration of droit de seigneur. Rather than an anthem of patriarchy, it feels like a man exploring the nastiest edges of his psychic potential. No less brave is the Hayden-led ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’, a folky ballad of quick fumbles up back alleys that makes the crude and mundane darkly romantic. Of all the second albums expected this year, this might not have been the one you were waiting for. You might even have hated their first. But Wild Beasts have undergone a sea change, and this beautiful album is a treasure that deserves plundering.
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