PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Wild Beasts: Smother

Wild Beasts return with a subtle, stripped-down album that represents their finest work -- and one of the finest albums you'll hear all year.


Wild Beasts

Smother

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2011-05-10
UK Release Date: 2011-05-09
Amazon
iTunes

There’s a moment on “Lion’s Share”, the opening track on Wild Beasts’ third LP, Smother, where a steady beat bubbles up in the low-end of the mix. The percussion slithers underneath Hayden Thorpe’s angelic falsetto and gentle piano melody, co-leader Tom Fleming lending his voice in harmony. Fans raised on the UK-based group’s past two albums, Limbo, Panto (2008) and Two Dancers (2009), know the signal: the rhythm section is readying itself to join the party in full, to work things into a lather in the way the band has already mastered.

Only -- it doesn’t happen. Instead, the music drops away, leaving Fleming to coo, “What are you running from?” before Thorpe reprises his strangely comforting chorus: “Because it’s a terrible scare / But that’s why the dark is there / So you don’t have to see what you can’t bear / (The lion’s share).” The track ends where it began, the piano ringing starkly in the mix’s negative space. The band has wasted no time in letting us know that Wild Beasts will be doing things differently this time around. The musical restraint of “Lion’s Share” echoes throughout Smother, a not-entirely-minimalist record, but one that scales back every element of its songwriting enough that each note seems precious.

Lyrically, too, Thorpe and Fleming strike a subtler tone. Look again at “Lion’s Share”, which paints a distinctively Thorpesque portrait of a vaguely sinister world. However, the darkness here also offers some comfort in its embrace, a chance to hide from the monsters that populate Wild Beasts’ songscapes. Yes, some songs sound more familiar than others -- “Bed of Nails” bounces along with the best of Two Dancers, while “Albatross” slinks sexually in the style of that record’s come-ons. Drummer Chris Talbot still seems part-octopus, using his unusual array of toms to lay down beats both busy and locked rock-solid. His drums are pushed front-and-center, and though Smother is certainly Wild Beasts’ least danceable album, it's also the band’s most rhythm-centric.

Cumulatively, these shifts might make the record’s first spin a slight disappointment for some fans. For thosem fans: whatever you do, keep listening. Smother, Wild Beasts’ gentlest record, may be its best. It unfolds with crystalline, implacable beauty -- of such a level that it often sounds almost otherworldly, delivered from somewhere in the far atmosphere. Kid A comes to mind as a reference point in its elliptical song structures, as do the more stripped-down songs of repetition-minded electronic artists like Pantha du Prince and Richard Villalobos. Of course, though synths and programming hover in the background of many tracks here, Wild Beasts make music with real, live, string instruments. As such, even the most cyclical and bare songs -- “Deeper”, “Invisible” -- sound somehow crawling with human life, as if their perfect cocoons of rhythm could tear around the edges at any moment. It makes for a subtly thrilling experience, the kind that becomes completely internalized, where you don’t realize you’re gripping the edge of your chair with white knuckles until the music stops.

When the band does allow its songs to unfold their wings more directly, the results are equally riveting. “Loop the Loop” sees Thorpe’s breathy vocals build to an amazing -- and deliciously brief -- climax, clamoring above Fleming’s steady bassline, “Forget now / How many must die / Forget now / How many must die / Forget now / How many must die / Forget…” The moment lays bare a sense of tremendous loss and vulnerability, Thorpe’s surprisingly staccato delivery brilliantly poised to do so. Equally to the point, he and his band don’t try to draw the moment out beyond its natural limits. They raise the emotional tenor to the roof for just a few seconds, and then let the air out of it. Isn’t that how we experience the most beautiful things in life, too?

If all that sounds a bit heavy for a rock 'n' roll review, Smother is the kind of record that begs for such unselfconscious reactions. Its an album made by a group who has stripped itself of all pretensions (including, in a bittersweet way, the black humor that fills many of their older songs) in an attempt to make an emotionally resonant -- and emotionally cohesive -- album about loss, disconnection, and longing. The trio of closing songs hit as hard as any material in recent memory. “Reach a Bit Further” joins (finally!) Thorpe and Fleming in a vocal match-up; when Fleming’s voice comes into the fray, it’s a revelatory moment. His “Burning” may be the album’s single most devastating moment. Over the metallic clang of an e-bowed acoustic guitar, looped and filtered backwards, his baritone breathes such feeling into lyrics about a reluctant-lover-as-reluctant-savior that it becomes almost too difficult to listen -- but good luck turning it off. “End Comes Too Soon” drops away into Eno-esque electronic ambience in its fourth minute before exploding back to life in a burst of tremendous, cinematic energy.

After you let it seep its way into your daily life, Smother reveals itself as the type of masterwork so fragile and unobtrusive as to leave itself vulnerable to being brushed away by those listeners without patience. Don’t let yourself be among them.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.