Hayden Thorpe's voice, though. I have to start with Hayden Thorpe's voice.
What you get in the opening seconds of the first song on the first Wild Beasts album is two bars of a slow, simple, purely percussive groove, and then, immediately, this voice, like a golden shimmering cut across the sky. Even in popular music's male falsetto canon those opening seconds mark him out as something unique; if Neil Young in the upper reaches of his voice is a humble man of the land casting his eye on a distant star, and Thom Yorke uses his to become somewhat less corporeal, Hayden Thorpe is loud, and direct, and utterly, dangerously present - and he begins at a high D, a higher note than either of those two have ever managed. And what's he singing?
Room a catacomb
This ghoul a balloon
With the breath from beneath your breast
Yes, that is best
The band are all here, now, to play short, sharp, heartbreakingly beautiful chords on the second beat of the bar; if you're already swaying to this song, this is the moment where you cock your hips, or toss your hair. So far our singer has revealed nothing about himself through his lyrics except that he enjoys a good bit of assonance and values it more highly than making any kind of immediate sense. His voice isn't quite perfect, it seems, groaning for a fraction of a second on the "yes". A pause, then verse 2:
Hug it to me
And the rubber raspberries
With wantingly wet mouth I suck
Remind me of your gentle fuck
You can hear him straining again in this verse, less fleetingly this time. He's still angelic on those high notes, but he runs into peril if he flies a bit too low and dips into typical, human, masculine range.
Then the chorus.
There's a second voice behind him on this word, a Scott Walker-esque baritone. This is Tom Fleming, about whom more later. Fleming vanishes, Thorpe is alone at centre stage again.
to be men,
On the second "men", he drops to a mid F#, still just barely among the humans, and his voice just, fucking, shatters.
must love and pity...
After this line, Fleming returns...
So deeply and secretly...
...and propels Thorpe heavenward once again.
Wild Beasts' 2008 debut album Limbo, Panto is a wild, rollicking reckoning with masculinity delivered by (to my knowledge) four straight boys in their early 20s from the Lake District. I've never heard, seen or read anything quite like it. It sounds like a hundred years of boarding school bullies and mummy's boys and centre-forwards and business school graduates and lotharios and virgins and hooligans and Byronic poets clutching at their heads and howling the twisted emotions at the pits of their hearts all at once.
Take "The Club of Fathomless Love", a kind of deranged comic opera, which sees Thorpe pleading urgently to an unknown party -- a deity? a captor? -- that he possesses true manhood and he's always made the most of it. "I've shorn and I've sheened and I've Brylcreamed, have I not?? I've brawn and I've brain and of both I've shame, have I not??" He claims to have "a heart as big as a dustbin lid", a popular regional expression deployed brilliantly here: a heart that swells and clangs in equal measure. His voice still lurches between its saintly high and corrupted low. "But I'm not! A soft touch!" (He drops from B to A as if he's plunging into an Ace Chemicals vat.) "And I won't! Be seen as such!!"
Tom Fleming takes the lead vocal on the next song and can I just say: what a joy and a privilege it is to witness a band in which, of two phenomenal lyricists and singers, Tom Fleming is the sober, measured one. "The Devil's Crayon" is a stirring, poetic anthem about, it seems to me, complicity in the patriarchy, and the historical factors that weigh heavy on interactions between men and women, and nearly a full decade and countless mealy-mouthed, self-serving apologies "on behalf of all men" later, it still holds up. Thorpe swoops in with this curious line: "The way you say her name, I want mine said the same, devil! Devil! Devil! Devil!" It's extremely open to a reading of unrequited queer love and jealousy, but I don't think that's the game they're playing here; the jealousy seems more likely to be that of a man simply leading to the devil to be desired the way women are desired, with no heed for the consequences.
I love that Wild Beasts signed to Domino because it makes it absolutely necessary to consider Thorpe and Fleming in the same arena as Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, and Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys. You can do that in your own time, I'm not holding your hand through that one.
Limbo, Panto has no answers, conclusions, or morals, just lurid scenes. It's masculinity as a Bosch painting, just spilling out from the centre and happening everywhere you look. Sometimes it's just Thorpe leaning hard into his fixation on hot breath and pungent odours and viscous fluids, or outdoing himself over and over with florid descriptions of stadium stands ("Unstable stands aflush with fans / pilfered pies and pints in wobbly hands"), or childbirth ("A human is hauled from the womb's wired jaw"), or ejaculation ("Flaccid, I asked for this / bellow spit rich belly pit moan and blush with hot hormone"), or whatever the fuck is happening in "She Purred, While I Grrred" ("Her fruit was ripe, I bit / pungent juice wept from the bruise where the skin was sluice and slobbered on").
I fell in with a group of friends when I was 21. Most of them were in a band together, most of them lived together in a sharehouse, or at least close enough to always be drifting in and out of it in a pleasingly reliable sort of way. They'd quote things to each other, and often a quote would bounce slowly around the house. Most often it was the Mighty Boosh (which I always enjoyed so much more hearing my friends recite it to each other than as an actual television programme) but sometimes it'd be a song; I remember one day I came to visit and found that they'd all become very taken with the one line that Stephen Malkmus sings in a mock-British accent on Pavement's "We Dance", "Check the expiration date, man! / it's later than you think". Will, my closest friend of the lot, moved to Melbourne after a while, and I'd visit him when I could. On one visit he excitedly played me "Woebegone Wanderers" almost as soon as I walked in the door, and for the next few hours, whenever he'd stand up to do anything around the house, he'd sing this line, often without quite meaning to, doing so an octave lower than Hayden Thorpe but still imitating his trademark vocal death-plunge as best he could:
by my own...
COCK AND BALLS...
What I'm saying is that listening to Wild Beasts is an absolute delight, and that the lyrics represent a kind of hell, but the voices and the instrumentation are themselves the escape from that hell.
Tom Fleming fronts the band on one more song. It's called "His Grinning Skull", and, again, what an incredible album this is, in which this song stands out for its relative subtlety and restraint. It's a song about a man trying to supplant his lover's powerhouse of an ex, now deceased. It lives in and grows from the queasy moment in the Magnetic Fields' "The One You Really Love" in which the titular line is flatly altered to become "the corpse you really love". (Compare that deadpan delivery to the more insidiously dispassionate way that Fleming announces, with a savage pause midway, "So now he is home... to the bluebottles".) It's a story told with a metaphor that starts out simple, with the dead man's bones still very much present, in nearby shallow ground, or under the water, or in a downstairs room, or in some peculiar space that's somehow all three. But then the metaphor breaks free of its moorings and seems to override the more conventional story; it's one thing for the narrator to hear "tap-tapping in the room below" and a voice declaring "I'll eat this young whelp's heart, I will", but then Thorpe takes over in the song's final stretch: "With fists for spades, we raid his grave / with big black boots, we stomp the roots", and what the fuck kind of real-life circumstance does that map onto?
The same goes for "Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye", the final song on the album and a fitting climax for Thorpe's character. Our hero is climbing into the cannon in a circus tent, grinning and gritting his teeth just to hold back the tears, all because the alternative is suffering the scorn of his friends in the stands, and the band plays the scene with such bombast and conviction that you fully believe he's about to die, and that his death will be met with hearty applause.
They dropped so much of this for their second album, Two Dancers, a year later. No more music-hall piano, no more circus tents and boarding schools, no more spots and stained sheets on bottom bunks, no more words like "oozing" and "bulging" and "wibbling", and most remarkably of all, we find Hayden Thorpe equally at ease at all points in his extraordinary vocal range. Was the death-plunge found throughout Limbo, Panto an error, corrected with hard work and determination? Or a studied affectation that he felt weighed down by and chose to jettison, like the pinched, squeaky tone that Rowan Atkinson ditched entirely between the first and second series of Blackadder? Who knows?
Wild Beasts on Two Dancers are sleek and virile. The comparisons come more easily now; the main one that comes to my mind is Radiohead's In Rainbows, and it's impressive enough that they manage to put themselves in the same league on just their second album, even before you get to the fact that they open with a song that's obliquely about Fathers4Justice at first, before taking a sharp turn into the spectacle of Thorpe cooing "This is... a booty call... my boot, my boot, my boot, my boot up your asshole..." What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?
Two Dancers seems to be a loose concept album about a night in the company of a carousing gang of street toughs, and also, somehow, about an author, or a journalist, or a Morrissey, blithely romanticising the idea of a night in the company of a carousing gang of street toughs:
A crude art, a bovver boot ballet
Equally elegant and ugly
I was as thrilled as I was appalled
Courting him in fisticuffing waltz
I can't write about Smother. It's a perfect album. If you wait until you know Limbo, Panto and Two Dancers back to front before you listen to Smother it'll bring you to tears. Like: of all the bands to turn out to have been real angels, all four of them, all along.
I can't write about Present Tense either. It's the angels from Smother deciding to live on Earth as mortals after all. Or maybe Thorpe's here because he fell in love and Fleming's here because he just... fell.
And then there's Boy King. It's Wild Beasts as directed by Paul Verhoeven. It's everything they're known for reimagined as blunt force, and it's perversely enjoyable for it -- there's a song called "Tough Guy", and the chorus of the song called "Tough Guy" goes like this:
Now I'm all fucked up
And I can't stand up
So I'd better suck it up
Like a tough guy would!
But it just doesn't entirely work. Every album they ever made was a move, but Boy King is their first truly self-conscious and counterintuitive move, the first time you can hear them denying their hearts. It's a heel turn they just can't sell.
And now they've called it a day. Not only an incredible body of work, but one of the most astonishing album arcs of 21st-century music. Enjoy them in order if you can. It all starts with "Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy": those drums, for a couple of bars, and then that voice.