Wild Beasts have a reputation as an acquired taste. Last year’s debut Limbo, Panto cemented the suggestion of their early singles that here was a band that is eccentric, ambitious and courageous, content to repel as many listeners as they win over. They created sinister, gaudy melodramas revolving around their British homeland, its romantics and its reprobates with a lurid poeticism of an almost Wildean ilk. They penned song titles like “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants” and “She Purred While I Grrrred” and lyrics such as “My top’s off / I’m a goosepimpled god / upon my girth rests the earth / gonna give it what I’ve got”. Worse still for those on the wrong side of the fence, their lead singer was the proprietor of a wildly theatrical, gleefully unhinged falsetto which he was intent on flourishing recklessly at every opportunity. It is little surprise, then, that even amongst the critical applause Wild Beasts became renowned for Hayden Thorpe’s vocal chords over anything else. That is a shame, really, because Limbo, Panto can also proudly lay claim to some of the finest hooks of 2008, delivered with striking originality and depth and clarity that belied the youth of the Kendal-born, Leeds-based quartet.
This, then, is where Two Dancers comes in. Coming a little over a year after its predecessor, it is immediately apparent that this is an album far less raw, much less boisterous. The idiosyncrasies are all still here: the vicarious lyricism; Thorpe’s vocal dramatics; bassist Tom Fleming’s deep, rounded croon; the shivering, shimmering guitar; the lustful prancing and peacocking. The difference, though not always stark, is in delivery (production values are unprecedentedly squeaky-clean, too, but that’s another story). Where Limbo swung open with a swaggering kick of a drum and Thorpe strutting his way onto the scene, heralded by his own falsetto, Two Dancers begins tentatively, with electronic murmurs intercepted by a slowly grooving bassline and soft chimes of guitar. Even when the resultant song, “The Fun Powder Plot” (their taste for song-title whimsy is still intact), kicks off proper, it’s one of style and grace rather than carousing, rabble-rousing indie-pomp.
That’s not to imply that Wild Beasts have mellowed and matured beyond what made them such a capricious delight, but they have palpably mellowed and matured. Two Dancers isn’t an abandonment of what some see as their most troublesome traits in favor of the mainstream success those same fans feel the band could quite easily otherwise achieve. It is an accommodation of those habits within a streamlined, fine-tuned, altogether more balanced whole. To illustrate, those trademark Thorpe histrionics remain relatively leashed until the fourth track “When I’m Sleepy”, when their employment isn’t an arbitrary whim but the ideal, oozing delivery for the ribald refrain, “When he’s sleepy / eating supper / you’re the lips for him to pucker”. Fleming’s debonair tenor, all but restricted to a supporting role on Limbo, takes charge of four of the 10 offerings here, but again this feels like an aesthetic choice, rather than the product of any ulterior designs on accessibility. Fleming suits the title-track’s waves of reverb-heavy guitar better than Thorpe, for instance.
It’s hard to see Fleming’s increased profile as a bad thing. In any other outfit, he would be a cherished frontman—yet another indicator, if one were ever needed, of just how arresting his bandmate’s voice is. Nonetheless, “The Devil’s Crayon”, bossed by Fleming’s unflappable yet curiously affecting tone, was Limbo‘s best four minutes by, if not a country mile, then at least a rural yard. Here, his Cumbrian-accented impassivity has a similar effect on “All the King’s Men”, striding suavely alongside buoyant, bobbing backing chants and Thorpe’s breathless yelps. It’s this sort of interplay that makes Wild Beasts work so well, but the attack is three-pronged, rather than two-. There are countless instances on Two Dancers when both vocalists step aside entirely and let guitarist Ben Little take center-stage in a way he was rarely granted previously. Lead single “Hooting and Howling” has a superb staccato motif stamped all over it, while on the ebullient “We Still Got the Taste Dancing On Our Tongues” is memorable as much for Little’s shimmering stacks of reverb-frosted guitar as it is the Thorpe’s wordless, quavering refrain.
It’s the tail-end of Two Dancers, however, that contains the most telling sign of Wild Beasts’ evolution. The gorgeous “This Is Our Lot” finds solemn elegance amid the desperation of a Friday night dancefloor mating ritual, all ranks perfectly judged and beautifully restrained, while the lovely, though abruptly truncated, “Underbelly” is stripped back further, a somber Thorpe alone with only a piano’s company before he gives up the ghost to leave a trail of twinkling electronics. Album closer “The Empty Nest” is reminiscent of its Limbo counterpart in the seaworthy sway of its choral backing, but as it—and its parent record—draws resignedly to a rest amid crackles of guitar, the comparison only serves to highlight just how graceful, refined and beguiling everything is this time around. Two Dancers marks a big step forward for Wild Beasts. The eccentricities are still present, the quirks still correct, but everything has been shepherded into a more cohesive, frequently more melancholy, totality. These are beasts not tamed, as such, but those who’ve learned when to hold back, and when to sink in their teeth.
// Notes from the Road
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