Wild Beasts are nocturnal creatures. "I die everyday, to live every night", sung Thorpe on the band’s first LP, 'Limbo, Panto'. It was a line delivered with the grizzly snarl he so often adopts, shrouded in theatrical affectation yet belying the sort of potent sincerity only an actor can convey. This overblown tone ("flamboyant, almost vaudevillian" as Pitchfork described it) was what made the band stand out, carving out a niche so niche it was barely visible. As thespian art rockers with a penchant for beautifying the most mundane elements of British life, they found their middling, unremarkable but not unrespectable position on the radar of British indie; "doing okay" but never sky-rocketing to main-stage status.
Still, being humble looked good on them. In 'This Is Our Lot' from the band’s second and perhaps most popular album, Thorpe’s vocal tone and the architecture of the production are of such a scale that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a song about high drama – love, death, grief. In a way, it is. Yet rather than a manner house or the gusty cliff-top, the setting for this period play was the dirty dance-floor of a shitty club somewhere in middle England. It is a classic example of the band’s love of bathos.
This tendency to find high drama within the realm of the despairingly ‘normal’ is what marks Wild Beasts out as one of the best bands working in Britain today. Through sheer force of wit they have been able to create whole universes of the imagination within absurd and often comically everyday settings. "Another cosmos beneath the big-top, when I bellyflop", as Thorpe once put it. On the band’s latest record, they are still creating the same effect, but rather than opting for ordinary in the sense of kebab vans and clubnights, the new subject matter is lazy mornings and time spent with a lover. Stories of backstreet promiscuity have been swapped for sincere statements of what one might call, in Disney-speak, "true love".
The main change from the early material, then, is that some of the spirit of the ringmaster has gone. No longer is Thorpe’s falsetto characterised by shrieks and yelps; it has given way to a softer, warmer and more full-bodied delivery. Of course, he still sings about being a night-owl, dough-eyed and driven by carnal desire ("the day drags like a dead thing, so the night is for mending") but the last traces of panto are gone, dissolved in the air leaving only the sincerity and poetic mastery hinted at in their earlier work. Nor is it just Thorpe’s voice that represents a shift. Fleming has increased his presence on this record, delivering a foreboding and engrossing performance on 'Daughters', a nightmarish odyssey about the carnage that may well be left in his generation’s wake, and the "pretty little children sharpening their knives" that haunt his guilty conscience. Ben Little’s role on the guitar has been somewhat pared back in favour of his work on the keyboard. Some typically Beasts-esque guitar lines remain, but for the most part the album is rooted in synth with resonance in 80’s and 90’s influences. As for Chris Talbot, he has still maintained his signature sparse, bongo-based groove on the drums, but it is supplemented by forays into slightly murkier territory. On the lead single, 'Wanderlust', his presence is driving and primal, determined and relentless, representing a stark shift from the distant and sometimes dainty beats on previous tracks like 'Plaything'.
As the title of the album suggests, the two biggest themes explored are time and language, and how they interrelate. Thorpe spends most of his time lamenting how difficult it is to capture the feeling of a moment in words. "All we want is to know the vivid moment" he sings, "…we’ve a Mecca now". This Mecca is the perfect moment, the "sweet spot" he sings of on track two: an unobtainable future point that drives the relationship on, giving it momentum and a sense of purpose: "to hold the other end of the thread".
By the time Thorpe finally gets to reflect on his perfect moment, though, it has already passed. "We had a gift, the perfect present/ No such a thing, I’m told" he sings on the most 80’s-infused track on the album, 'Past Perfect'. The lovers’ lament is that everything is past or future, it’s impossible to ever fully appreciate the present – it can only be reflected upon in memory.
Whilst the passing moments evade their grip, what the lovers do have is each other, and their shared language. On 'Pregnant Pause', a track so voluptuously melodious it might just send you to sleep, this aspect of the their relationship is placed centre stage. "Not everybody understands us", sings Thorpe, but that doesn’t matter. He’s content caught in stasis, existing only in the words he speaks, the "pillow-talk patois from a land long gone". Wild Beasts have always been seen as a little ‘weird’, it seems now they’ve stopped worrying or trying to justify it – they’re happy to speak in their own unique and deeply meaningful way, regardless of whether other people ‘get it’ or if they’ll top festival bills. This newly self-assured attitude is mirrored in the relationship described on the record – the lovers understand each other, and the band’s fans understand them, so what does it matter if someone from the NME starts moaning.
The crowning moment of the album which deserves some special attention is the ethereal and understated 'Palace'. Thorpe’s tone is soaring and longing, coated in the lightest and sweetest of synths. The ascendant melody culminates in a euphoric chorus, expressed in few words, "oh palace, my palace, oh". It’s a chorus which doesn’t reoccur enough – it is over too quickly, and the album comes to an abrupt end. Before we know it the moment has passed, and all we can do is reflect.
Or, as you may find yourself doing quite a bit: just hit play again.
Words: Francis Blagburn