One of Britain’s most well-read bands since The Smiths and sex obsessed since Suede, Wild Beasts have honed their unique brand of art pop to near perfection over the past decade with four critically acclaimed albums. The flamboyant, falsetto-led theatrics of their disjointed 2008 debut ‘Limbo, Panto’, and the tamer, more refined Mercury-nominated ‘Two Dancers’ the following year announced the Kendal-born quartet as one of Britain’s most exciting new bands. The hushed hedonism of 2011’s achingly beautiful ‘Smother’ saw them craft their most flawless record to date, while 2014’s tricky, electronic-leaning follow-up ‘Present Tense’ confirmed Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming as being among Britain’s finest songwriting duo’s.
Their fifth album, ‘Boy King’, sees Wild Beasts trying their best to rid themselves ofthe “clever band” label they’ve acquired by deliberately dumbing down their sound. Lead vocalist Hayden Thorpe initially set out with the aim of blending the R&B-flavoured soul-pop of Justin Timberlake with the industrial pulse of Nine Inch Nails. However, after taking a collection of songs to Texas to work with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, what came out the other side was a cosmically inclined dance-funk record which sees the literary references, soft romanticism and intricate instrumentation of their previous work being replaced by a heavier, more hook-orientated slab of masculine pomp.
It’s a sound that’s certainly suited to its concept of the young male ego in crisis. But lovers of their literate and more nuanced work may find the shift towards hedonistic revelry difficult to reconcile with, at least to begin with. Its four singles do sound better in context, but plodding opener ‘Big Cat’ and the slightly more dramatic ‘Tough Guy’, which showcases some of the John Congleton-inspired guitar effects that feature throughout, see the album getting off to a sluggish start. However, the meaty funk of the Black Friday-inspired ‘Get My Bang’ is definitely a grower, while the superb ‘Celestial Creatures’ steals the show with its liquid synths and juddering bass.
The two tracks featuring Tom Fleming‘s baritone vocals on lead, the jerky synth-pop of ‘2BU’ and the R&B-influenced groove of ‘Ponytail’, where he duets with a sped-up vocal sample, add variation and stability to the second half. Sandwiched between these is another highlight with the driving ‘He the Colossus’, but this is somewhat counterbalanced by the rather weak, messy sex loving ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’. Despite its peacocking exterior, bubbling just below the surface are numerous vulnerabilities, heard particularly on their ode to the opposite sex, ‘Alpha Female’, and even more so on piano-led closer ‘Dreamliner’, proving that Hayden Thorpe still has a beautiful ballad in him.
To create ‘Boy King’, Wild Beasts have sacrificed a big chunk of what made them so unique and adored, effectively turning in on themselves and becoming the band they’ve always fought against being. Some will see it as a deliberate act of self-sabotage, but you have to admire them for having the self-confidence tear it all down and start again. ‘Boy King’ is a solid enough record with plenty to enjoy, but because it lacks the emotional depth and intricate instrumentation of past works it becomes a difficult album to fall in love with.