Where they previously rollicked in bacchanalian throes of ecstasy, Wild Beasts now smoulder in the snow, outside a cottage, and ruminate on the complexities of sexuality. On Smother, their third album, they withdraw even further from the boisterous carnality of their debut, Limbo, Panto, and make the steely funk of Two Dancers seem upbeat by comparison. Now they sound less certain of their sex appeal, even as they mentally undress fine young fillies on the heath.
The Kendal four piece’s familiar elements remain, but everything is dialed back, the melodies simplified, the tempos brought down to a slithering crawl, like a Cumbrian Fever Ray. Chris Talbot still reaches instinctively for bongos and rototoms on the off-beat, but now he only feels the need to caress them gently. Toning down the post-rock washes he used to colour in the gaps on Two Dancers, guitarist Ben Little instead works with cleaner tones, and he often just takes a backseat to the album’s more prominent keyboards.
Musically, Smother looks backwards to Talk Talk circa Spirit of Eden, and Kate Bush at her Hounds of Love creative apogee. Opener “Lion’s Share” sees a foreboding throb of bass spar with plaintive piano and Hayden Thorpe’s unmistakeable countertenor, which eventually cedes to Tom Fleming’s more velvety tones, here doing his best impression of Elbow’s Guy Garvey. Another treat is “Plaything”, which plants twinkling keys and stately percussion atop a synth drone that occasionally spirals into fluttering arpeggios. The effect is dazzling, especially when combined with Thorpe’s vocal melody, which creeps between the chords and instrumental melodrama. Near the end of the song, the arrangement suddenly cuts out, and Thorpe is multi-tracked into a scary cacophony of circus voices that instantly recalls Kate Bush’s “Waking The Witch”.
But Smother also looks forward to a rather different set of musical pioneers: Caribou and Four Tet, initially, and then Oneohtrix Point Never in the album’s concluding passages. There is a crispness to the electronics that underpin songs like “Bed Of Nails” and “Albatross”, while the gurgling wind chimes and bells that runbeneath “Reach A Bit Further” transforms what is nominally the album’s most straightforward and playful track into something more sinister, like on the Caribou song “Bowls”. On the final two songs of Smother, the soundscapes reach OPN levels of abstraction, which is of great credit to the band. “Burning and “End Come Too Soon” see the band stretching out luxuriantly, with gaps between phrases so long you could make tea during them. In the former, cascades of keys, bells, sub-bass tones and rain-like trills float above one another without ever colliding in the mix. It’s daring stuff, and the band pull it off in mesmerising style.
It sounds like they’ve reached a creative peak but then, on the closing track, the band go one step further with a seven-minute multi-part epic that emerges from listless guitar strumming but soon transforms into something rather different. Three minutes in, the piano starts to dominate, only to immediately recede into a fog of atmospherics. You have to be patient to get through it, which is more than can be said of the song’s protagonist, unable to fend off release. After more than a minute of this sonic fug, Thorpe can’t bear it any longer and, as the drums kick in again, he joins in with a wordless chorus of euphoria, then bends the song’s title into whimperings of delight. You don’t notice it on initial listening, but throughout, the tempo has stayed pensive, resisting the urge to break into a quicker pace.
Alongside the musical complexity comes renewed lyrical sophistication. Thorpe and Fleming, who here embrace their roles of dual frontmen, were always keen on an offbeat turn of phrase (remember the “bovver-boot ballet” of “Hooting and Howling”?), but now they favour more misty-eyed sentiments. “Oh, don’t you think / That people are the strangest things?” asks Thorpe on “Loop The Loop”, over lolloping tropical percussion and elegant acoustic guitar filigree. On Two Dancers, Thorpe was the one threatening to beat up philanderers even as he slid into a girl’s frock, while Fleming was busy being dragged through the night and into a gang-rape. On Smother, both men seem threatened and puzzled, uneasy with their libido. The aforementioned “Plaything” begins with Thorpe seductively asking a “new squeeze” to “take off your chemise”, but by the second verse, he’s the one making sacrifices, admitting,
“Unfold my body: I’ve ransacked myself, I’ve flat-packed myself for your ease.”
On the track which follows, “Invisible”, Fleming takes the baton, only to try and disappear into nothingness. “I say my goodbyes / To everyone I know…I burn up my lists / They cease to exist”—this is the tragic lovestruck hero choosing to exit gracefully rather than seize victory in a thrilling finale. The ephemeral, gently struck guitar mirrors the sense of shame, an emotion propped up by the cheap synthesised trumpet lurking at the back of the mix.
Though by the album’s final track Thorpe is back in the mode of the libidinous adolescent, he seems tempered by the journey the band have made over the course of the album. It’s as if they’ve suffered the tortuous drizzle of the Welsh countryside, in the midst of which Smother was recorded, and returned to Shoreditch, wiser but no less hormonal beasts.
Smother is a complex creation which, with its perpetual yearning, sits at odds with the “boozy lubricity” they used to depict. But it’s also the satisfying and logical answer to Wild Beast’s first two albums, which seemed designed to provoke the question, “Where next?” One critic said Smother should add an extra ‘o’, because it’s so much smoother (geddit) than what preceded it. OK, it’s less spiky than what came before, but it’s also more prickly and thorny. In Smother, Wild Beasts have followed up an album which instantly gratified with something a bit more slow-burning. It takes longer to settle into the album’s uneasy groove, but what you find is undoubtedly worth the effort.