Album Review: Wild Beasts – ‘Smother’

By drawing out the dark side of sex, the band have made a masterpiece

In 1993, journalist Auberon Waugh established the Bad Sex In Fiction Award while editor of London’s distinguished Literary Review. It was intended to draw attention to what he called the “crude, tasteless and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it”. Last year’s winner, Rowan Somerville (key line: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with too blunt a pin, he screwed himself into her” – ack), on receiving his award for his novel The Shape Of Her, declared: “There is nothing more English than bad sex.”

[a]Wild Beasts[/a] might beg to differ. Since their first album, 2008’s ‘Limbo, Panto’, singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have relished singing about shagging with a kind of ribald nobility, tempering potentially awful leeriness with artful, archaic language and a satirical tongue. The title of their debut single alone – ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ – rings with hope and pride for those newly anointed knackers; ‘She Purred, While I Grrred’, on the same album, is more directly lascivious: “My fruit was ripe /She bit/Huffing and puffing on the mattress stuffing/Upon the bunk a fervent funk”. Is that the sound of collars loosening? ‘Limbo, Panto’’s follow-up, 2009’s ‘Two Dancers’, recognised what Somerville might have been referring to as classically English bad sex – the sheer indecorousness of it all, characterised in ‘Hooting And Howling’’s “a crude art, a bovver boot ballet”.

Whether fervent, flaccid or fetishistic, these Beasts have an Attenborough-like touch for observations of the fleshy ritual. It’s only now, with this, their third record, that the idea of sex being inherently “bad” comes into play, their focus shifting to the bare act itself, isolated from its implications and consequences – which, as any dolt will aver, can be jolly fucking bad indeed.

The clipped womp that beckons in opener ‘Lion’s Share’ glowers dangerously, before Hayden’s draggy [a]Kate Bush[/a] tones unveil a woman in surroundings far from the Beasts’ typical English streets and (ahem) back alleys: “I find you hidden there a veiled creature of the deep/Waifish as a widow and without sufficient sleep”.

The vulnerability is made creepier by an alternating, uneasy piano that ticks in with Hayden’s lascivious prowl, “I take you in the mouth like a lion takes his game”. About 60 listens in, I’m still not sure if that’s incredibly erotic or wilfully disturbing. Which is the whole point – the unnerving instrumentation (which pays homage to Oneohtrix Point Never while remaining utterly [a]Wild Beasts[/a]), the unfamiliar situation, and the one-sidedness of his approach all contribute to the nagging feeling that this should not be happening, and at least not with this person.

In interviews about ‘Smother’, the band have talked about how they were inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps they were identifying with the feeling of being an outsider, as arguably, no-one comes close to [a]Wild Beasts[/a]. But then, just as Frankenstein’s monster turned out to be more than its inventor had bargained for, so does the carnal carry-on of ‘Bed Of Nails’, Thorpe exclaiming, “When our bodies become electrified /It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s ali-e-i-e-i-e-i-i-i-ive” across flashes of warmly cascading guitar and Chris Talbot’s propulsive but unobtrusive drumming.

What Thorpe brilliantly terms “the Shelleys on their very first time” mirrors Doctor Frankenstein’s self-reproach in the novel: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but not that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” The more forthright ‘Loop The Loop’, whose splashy cymbals and eddying guitar would have sat handsomely in ‘Two Dancers’’ final third, offers the conundrum, “Desire, oh desire/Is all that the heart requires/Is what it can’t recognise”.

Without making assumptions as to how autobiographical these songs are, a red-handed case of infidelity at the heart of its lyrical themes might be a logical assumption to make given the album’s first single. The Talk Talk-ish fog of ‘Albatross’ takes Coleridge’s classic symbol of guilt, tipping in on Ben Little’s elegantly hocketing guitar and piano alongside some of the record’s most stinging drums (see also: ‘Reach A Bit Further’) – the percussive immediacy of ‘Two Dancers’ is, for the most part, less prominent here after its predecessor’s statement of intent. With guilt comes blame and self-flagellation, in the form of the regretful croon, “the secrets that I should have shared”.

It’s always said the best storytellers show rather than tell, and so it is with ‘Deeper’, where Tom takes lead vocals. Opening on a simple kick drumbeat, he laments, “The breakfast is all laid out/Waiting for you to arrive/The sun is rising/And going down again”. He doesn’t have to explain whose absence left the cornflakes to go soggy, or why; the sense of loss here gapes desperately thanks to the quiver in his voice and the reticently bright synth blooms throughout.

If ‘Deeper’ is physically empty, it’s ‘Plaything’ that’s spiritually moribund. Above skittering, patted drums and a foreboding bassline, Hayden commands “New squeeze/Take off your chemise/And I’ll do as I please” with utter detachment and no hint of affection, objectifying his co-conspirator before rendering himself as lifeless form and function, “flatpacked… for your ease”.

This is post-break-up sex, a ritual tainted by regret both past and present, not a wanton generalisation to be boasted about in bawdy terms that would have made our old friend Waugh’s skin crawl. ‘Smother’ as a whole is deserving of his, and everyone’s, unabashed and unironic praise. [a]Wild Beasts[/a] have abandoned observations of English prurience in favour of delving deep into their own internal landscapes, and without becoming navel-gazing bores – they lash themselves with their ever-sharp tongues as much as ‘Two Dancers’’ bovver-booted brutes (case in point: ‘Reach A Bit Further’’s refrain of “I was crude, I was lewd, I was rude, I was not in the mood”).

If that second album was where they first crystallised themselves as one of our smartest, most imaginative and important bands, they’ve not been tempted to make ‘Three Dancers’ to capitalise on that. Instead, ‘Smother’ is deeply sad and lonely, but still a barbed invitation to intimacy; like Coleridge’s albatross, an extraordinarily elegant, stunning, (near)-perfect portrait of how terribly bad decisions can turn out.

Laura Snapes