Wild Beasts’ Boy King is a woefully uncensored portrait of masculine libido woven through their aesthetically tightest record to date.
“Do I dare disturb the universe?” asks Wild Beasts singer, Hayden Thorpe, quoting the far less self-assured title character of TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in their song, “He the Colossus”. But don’t be fooled: despite this track’s comparative moment of reflection, (“Do I dare disturb the universe,” he asks, “ lest I become He the Colossus”) the role of Colossus is freely assumed throughout their new record, Boy King. The male narrators on Boy King have the world by the scruff -- and not the other way around -- on so many of the 21st century odes to an unadulterated masculine libido that comprise this album.
The record frankly explores the idea of primal male sexuality, usually connected to vignettes of casual sex. The Prufrockian moments of reflection, as in “He the Colossus” are overshadowed by use of phallic words like “Colossus”, which in this case towers over the song in network with the rest of the album’s libidinous vernacular. Boy King is defined by its self-consciously uncensored lyrics, in which the deepest, most problematic masculine urges are bared in sexy, spare songs built around cutting synths, provocative vocal performance and in-your-face drums.
With focus consistently on the album’s concept, the question is begged throughout: what new and un-explored form of masculinity is it that is being presented here? Don't we already have quite enough of that in our pop music? While purported attempts at being “visceral”, these lyric accounts of sexual encounters are rarely ugly, like in a Peaches song, or framed from an outside, female perspective. “Alpha Female” begins as an ode to a boss ass chick, but soon enough the singer winds up “behind” this Alpha Female, as she presumably assumes doggy style. The settings are often mediated by inflammatory fantasy.
At moments, not much seems to separate Wild Beasts’ bookishly poetic attempts at honesty, from the lower-brow likes of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines". On Boy King, lovers are admonished for “holding it back from me”, are told “I like it messy, don’t make it neat". Protagonists are identified as “Virgin Killer”.
But, what might get this album stuck in your craw if you, like me, are allergic to unfettered male symbolism, however ironic, is how dialed in it is musically, and how much that focus seems to be derived from how conscious it is of its own conceptual effort. How many times must the band have thought, “can we really say that?” over the course of making this album, and yet still pulled the trigger. How many times must these Londoners have weighed the cost of this provocation? Surely, they must read the news. And yet, their commitment to the record as a concept makes it, like a Leni Riefenstahl film, extraordinarily tight in its aesthetic. Perhaps shedding their conscience for a moment protected against other forms of overthinking the musical end product. It's also possible it made them more inclined to collaborate and share the burden with producer John Congleton, whose voice pierces the album throughout and whose hands were free to carefully weave the tight cohesion that this record accomplishes.
There's no disputing that it's on some of the more problematic tracks that record really shines musically. And unlike the creators of “Blurred Lines”, they didn’t need to steal anything to get that done. Track one, “Big Cat” finds Wild Beasts’ music in a similar world to Suuns’ 2016 Congleton-produced effort, Hold/Still, the air sucked out of huge, semi-human drums, slick vocoder pads greasing the rails of this their first foray into the male id. “Get My Bang”, perhaps the most squirm-inducing track on the record, is also one of the coolest. Sampled background vocals and synth bass fill out a song whose chorus is tenderly lifted by the entrance of a rare guitar, once a defining instrument for the band. The easily offensive question, “why would you hold it back?” is accented by the closing of a synth envelope, effectively “holding back” the track.
That the artistry is committed to the conveyance of this aggressive subject material reveals a fierce confidence in and ownership over the essential message: These are feelings that exist. These are everyday experiences that we, as men, experience. Censorship is wrong, even if it triggers the unspeakable. Fair enough. And yet it's distractingly hard to ignore, that the cat they seem to want to be let out of the bag, has been “Big Cat” around here for a while.