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.