Wild Beasts – Boy King (Domino)

Wild Beasts – Boy King (Domino)

Hyper-masculinity and sexuality has always been a big part of Wild Beasts’ psyche.  From the depictions of sexual acts on Limbo Panto (‘Vigil For a Fuddy Duddy’) to the acts of dominance that enveloped Two Dancers and Smother, there’s always been a kind of patriarchal, aggressive side to the otherwise nuanced Kendal alt-poppers.  Yet, these acts have always been framed firstly by memorable tunes and secondly by cleverly written lyrics.

On Boy King, the band set out to create something of a concept album about modern masculinity, something that should play to their strengths as lyricists.  Unfortunately, the foursome sometimes feel like they’re struggling to achieve their usual cleverly written commentary, particularly in the first few tracks.  Musically, the record kind of  follows on from where 2014’s Present Tense left off but gets much brasher, swathing itself in elongated drones on ‘Big Cat’ and reverberating synth on ‘Get My Bang.’  Unfortunately, while the 80s synth effects and chopped and skewed samples are perhaps meant to represent rough sex, the sounds themselves just aren’t sexy.

But the biggest problems with Boy King don’t lie in the music – there’s one or two missteps, but for the most part the tunes are bathed in a swathe of neon that’s definitely different but pulled off pretty well.  No, the problems lie in the particularly overbearing attitude within the lyrics, which often isn’t masked by clever wordplay or their usual deft touch.  On Present Tense’s ‘Past Tense,’ Thorpe sings “every fella deserves his dignity” but on the particularly grating ‘Alpha Female’ the band seem to have completely forgotten this mantra.  Hayden Thorpe sings – in his usual resplendent falsetto – “I will not hold you back,” as if trying to turn the tides on their usual patriarchal stance and give the woman some form of control.  That just comes across as hollow when in the chorus Thorpe repeats “alpha female I’ll be right behind you” in a skulking, predatory manner.  Even discounting the track’s repetitive nature, its gender politics are muddled, making it a tough listen.

Something similar happens on ‘Tough Guy.’  Thorpe talks about the woman as a “virgin killer” and realises “now I know why you keep me around,” seemingly trying again to give her some kind of dominant agency, but ruins it with posturing.  Wild Beasts have never been particularly good at talking about the female experience, which is why some of their greatest moments are either ridiculously, overbearingly masculine (‘All The King’s Men’) or take a slightly more gender-neutral approach (as on the collective, relatively veiled acts of oral sex on ‘We’ve Still Got the Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’).  To the credit of ‘Tough Guy,’ though, it does have a wonderfully squalling guitar solo at its close.

Lead single ‘Get My Bang’ is equally unsexy.  For all the dirtiness that Thorpe attempts to inject with his snarl (and his efforts are admittedly commendable), hearing him say the line “that’s how I get my bang” isn’t sensual.  It comes across like more of a failed pastiche of being a particularly virulent man, the type of guy you might see on Geordie Shore.  Arguably, this plays into their apparent commentary of how they see the modern young male (on the prowl, over-sexed), but you can’t shake the nagging feeling that they’ve done this in the past with more deft (see, for instance, the predatory nature of ‘Hooting & Howling’ where they’re “just brutes” “looking to have a hoot“).

In complete fairness, the album picks up immensely in its second half.  ‘Celestial Creatures’ adopts a dark electronic tone and guitar lick that’s reminiscent of Depeche Mode, and when Thorpe and fellow singer Tom Fleming team up they almost reach the heights of Dave Gahan at his most sleazy.  That might be because they don’t talk so directly either, standing back and cloaking themselves in metaphors in a way more akin to their previous efforts.  Fleming takes the reins on ‘2BU.’  Although it’s occasionally heavy-handed (“I’m the type of man who likes to watch the world burn”), there’s a sensitivity in the swooning, melancholic synths, and the very welcome self-awareness Fleming shows on lines like “know that I’m the worst” is endearing.  The quiet, contemplative closer ‘Dreamliner’ is similarly sensitive, with Thorpe lamenting “when I’m in dreams I’m always alone.”

There’s some of the band’s usual sparkling wordplay on display on ‘Ponytail,’ with lyrics such as “she won’t come lightly” adding bite and a little humour to the kind of creepy, hyper-romantic narrative. , ‘Big Cat’ pulls off a relatively decent metaphor, with the titular beast being “top of the food chain” and probably “on top” in a sexual sense too.  It’s a little on the nose but works as a representation of the character’s apparent overconfidence and prowess combined with sexual tension.

Unfortunately, on Boy King there just aren’t enough of these moments.  In many ways, this is a record curiously reflective of its own title.  Its first half displays some childish naivety, while the second half shows off some of the elements that originally made Wild Beasts such a force.  It’s a frustrating contradiction of an album, one whose themes should play into the hands of the raunchier side of the group but that slips through their fingers with every clunky lyric.  This could have been a very deep and interesting exploration of what it means to be a man in 2016.  As it stands, this is far from being their crowning glory.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.