Farewell, Wild Beasts, a brilliant Noughties band not consigned to the indie scrapheap
Humour me a second: it’s without reservation that I say Wild Beasts were a revelatory discovery for my teenage self. I’d always felt short-changed by the lumpen indie lads for whom young white men of my generation have such a voracious appetite, and consequently had to cast my net a little wider as a nascent music obsessive. Yet in Wild Beasts came a band who actually looked like me, spoke like me, and seemed to express many preoccupations that I shared.
Here were four young men from provincial, small-town England, of unglamorous heritage, who were literate, high-minded and, unusually, unabashed about flaunting those qualities. They sang about sex without betraying any latent prejudice, they parodied toxic masculinity in theatrical, flamboyant fashion, and in doing so confronted ugly truths about themselves which their contemporaries would never have dared touch.
Sonically, they drew upon a pool of influences quite separate to, and considerably more esoteric than anything I heard elsewhere, throwing divergent strains of Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Radiohead, Oneohtrix Point Never, Prince, Leonard Cohen and countless others together in unexpected, gorgeous sequence. You don’t get that with Catfish and the Bottlemen.
It was with a heavy heart, then, that in September I learnt the news of their imminent split. This Saturday, they play a farewell show at the Hammersmith Apollo. I can only commend them for quitting while they were ahead, however. In my view, they’re yet to release a bad record, and that’s an opinion that seems to be widely held by critics and fans alike.
Their playful, libidinous final album Boy King was a daring, uncompromising set, teeming with catchier hooks, meatier synths and sillier guitar solos than one could ever have expected of band who crafted sleeker, more introspective LPs like Smother and Two Dancers. Yet, as smooth and intricate as those mid-career albums are, Wild Beasts have never been fond of actual restraint. From their swashbuckling debut Limbo, Panto right through to their most recent output, they have demonstrated a willingness to challenge themselves and their audience in ways that are so rarely seen among popular British indie bands. Even in the most tender, vulnerable moments – Smother’s breathtaking “Invisible”, for example, or the criminally overlooked “Wanderlust” B-side, “Byzantine” – their music is restless in its construction, managing the uncanny feat of being at once red-bloodedly human, and semi-aloof in its elegance.
"Wild Beasts have confronted the ugly realities of life in a manner that few other acts of their generation have"
Wild Beasts leave an alarming void in their absence. Not, however, in commercial terms. Straightforward, verse-chorus British indie – despite the endless “guitar music is dead” naysayers – still produces high-charting records, and is selling out arenas and major festivals as we speak. 2017 alone produced some remarkable figures. Albums such as Reverend & The Makers’ The Death Of A King, The Kooks’ Best Of… So Far, and The Sherlocks’ Live For The Moment, all of which operate within a very similar artistic sphere with relatively little media support, made serious dents in the top 20. In the live arena, The Courteneers played to 50,000 people at Old Trafford, and the aforementioned Kooks continue to tour arenas worldwide. The Kooks are playing venues that dwarf the ones of times past, when they were releasing the material that still provides the backbone of their set.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of that as such. It’s just that the longer this phase lasts without significant progress, the more difficult it’ll be for genuine innovators of the genre to break through into an increasingly stagnant mainstream. As it stands, far too many of the most popular British indie acts represent little more than pale imitations of those recent forebears, themselves highly derivative, and offer very little that’s actually “new” or that engages with a recognisable version of British life beyond meat market club nights and vague notions of kitchen sink romance.
Photo: Sion Marshall Waters
At the beginning of this decade, Simon Reynolds commented that, “a series of indie heavyweights, starting with the Strokes and the Libertines... jolted the scene out of the dismal post-Britpop slough of the late ‘90s”. Although this may be true, it feels like we’re long overdue a similar jolt to break us out of the inevitable slump that ensued. In the same article, he writes: “Unexpectedly, the pre-indie associations of the word ‘independent’ – the post-punk ideal of music that's forward-thinking and all-gates-open, that embraces technology and is challenging without wholly abandoning pop pleasure or dance groove – have been reactivated.” In 2010, that optimism may have been well-reasoned. With hindsight, it’s difficult to argue that the potential he identified has been satisfactorily fulfilled by British indie.
Inarguably, there are exceptions to this, and some are more innocent than most of these mistakes: at least the likes of The Horrors or Foals, for example, reach a little further afield than the Blur vs. Oasis chart battle for artistic inspiration. Yet the extent to which Wild Beasts stand out – seeming so much more ambitious, eloquent and downright randy as so many of their contemporaries – should be a cause not only for celebration, but also for concern.
Of course, this widespread indie malaise can be explained in part by the general decrease in the rate of mainstream popular cultural change, as the creative industries buckle under the strain of diminishing funds and the seemingly unstoppable dominance of a handful of online giants over the culture to which the average consumer is exposed.
Despite this there are vast tracts of mainstream popular music that are suffering less unfavourably from this pervasive slowdown – with hip-hop, techno and R&B being the most obvious examples. Why then is so-called “guitar music”, at least in a mainstream, British sense, in such a stagnant state?
That’s an enormous, abstract question and such a diagnosis, never mind the suggestion of any solutions, is beyond scope somewhat, but it is worthy of discussion.
"they’re equally capable of expressing the insecurities and vulnerabilities of heterosexual masculinity as they are its testosterone-laden excesses"
As much as one could argue that music genres should be allowed to die off once they’ve run their artistic course, and we shouldn’t worry about “the state of guitar music” as there are so many far more interesting places to look for invigorating, insightful work, there’s still a demonstrably huge audience for this stuff. At the moment, the closest many of them get to a profound expression of masculinity, sexuality or the human condition from their favourite bands are Alex Turner’s slobbery double entendres. People deserve better than that.
One way of beginning to understand this sorry situation may be via an examination of common subject matter. To this writer, it’s the stuff that isn’t sung about that matters: honest depictions of sexuality, gender identity, and how it actually feels to be a young man in 2018. So many of the lyrics of today’s most successful British indie bands are as trapped in the ‘60s as the song structures they’re plonked atop.
"Restlessness is a virtue for creative people, and it’s a credit to this group that they never sounded content to err on the side of caution"
For a case in point just take Blossoms, the inane “worst of Manchester” tribute band who, incredibly, were nominated for a Mercury Prize last year. Their breakout single, “Blown Rose”, a sluggish attempt at misty-eyed psych-pop, features such parochial nonsense as the following, by way of a chorus:
“The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand,
Lately it’s a lonely love I know; blown rose, go.”
Not only is that little couplet totally devoid of actual meaning, it’s also a perfect verbal analogue for the problem at the heart of bands like Blossoms. Their sexless, half-arsed nostalgic rock shirks artistic boldness or genuine engagement with the present in favour of gawping at the glories of the past without understanding that the reasons for forebears having a lasting cultural impact lie in their historical context. What was groundbreaking in 1967 is not and should not be deemed so now, no matter what the Mercury panel tries to tell you.
By contrast, Wild Beasts have confronted the ugly realities of life in a manner that few other acts of their generation have. In this way they have more in common with the likes of Sleaford Mods or the Fat White Family than one might initially think, and certainly more so than many of the bands they emerged alongside in the mid/late ‘00s indie boom (The Maccabees, Bloc Party et al.).
Take “All The King’s Men”, Wild Beasts’ rambunctious lead single from 2009’s Two Dancers. In his throaty, earthen baritone, Tom Fleming sings of women as “birthing machines – let me show my darling what that means”. In lesser hands, the misogyny in that sentence would be unbearable, but we know there’s more at work here. By the song’s end, it has become an admission of guilt: a recognition of the darkness of that kind of language and behaviour (“Baby, turns out I’m evil /…number my babies and my broken body”). All this is presented with melodic turns and instrumental arrangements which constantly twist notions of masculinity and femininity between and above one another – all flailing falsettos and febrile timbres.
Even in their poppiest moments, of which “All The King’s Men” is one, Wild Beasts are equally capable of expressing the insecurities and vulnerabilities of heterosexual masculinity as they are its testosterone-laden excesses. The pursuit of that kind of expression is one of the things that drive Wild Beasts to create their inimitable music. It’s one of their most distinctive qualities.
They’ve also never been afraid to be a little less cryptic: a little more on-the-nose and indignant. Just look at tracks like “Wanderlust” with its laconic refrain of “don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck”, or “Alpha Female”, its simple, driving theme written from the title down. This isn’t the work of a bashful group.
Additionally, Wild Beasts also have an uncanny ability to evoke very specific themes via their instrumentation, which is a neat trick. Most artists manage to conjure vague atmospheres of melancholy or optimism in their work but it’s rare to hear musicianship and lyricism interact as intimately as this. On “Sweet Spot”, for example, the trickling guitars that enter after Hayden Thorpe intones, “there is a godly state/…where the real and the dream may consummate”, enact that line perfectly, engaging in an ethereal exchange that so accurately illustrates Thorpe’s words. For something a little less wholesome, take “Plaything”, the seedy centrepiece of the otherwise graceful Smother. As Thorpe salivates over amorous lyrics, breathing down our necks, Chris Talbot’s drums stalk closely behind, simultaneously delicate and threatening. It’s a peculiar, unsettling track, sensual yet uneasy, rather than bluntly sexy or lovelorn. The more I think about it, the more that makes sense as a description for this band as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong, Wild Beasts are not, and were never, a perfect group. Look back through their career and you’ll find numerous examples of them overstepping the line between the sublime and the ridiculous. Limbo, Panto, particularly, has numerous moments which now feel a little ill-judged, a little too obviously the work of randy young lads desperate for attention. And I always regarded Present Tense as a record brimming with experiments that narrowly missed the mark, failing to entirely deliver on the promise of the coruscating “Wanderlust”, which remains one of the band’s most powerful moments (incidentally, the record that followed, Boy King, did fulfil that potential, to stunning effect). But how refreshing is it to witness a band trying a little too hard, being a little too bold, making themselves too vulnerable? Restlessness is a virtue for creative people, and it’s a credit to this group that they never sounded content to err on the side of caution.
It’s worth stating that, ultimately, Wild Beasts are not revolutionary. It’s reductive, but let’s be honest: this is a group of four straight, white lads with electric guitars. Their records may have felt challenging, transgressive even, but for the most part they were neat, considered indie albums, whose idiosyncrasies were worn brazenly but with polish and audibly careful consideration. The band’s arrangements are inventive, yes, but drawn from an unquestionably familiar palette: vocals, drums, bass, guitar, relatively routine sounding synthesisers. This is hardly Einstürzende Neubauten or Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
But Wild Beasts did stand out from the start – and that’s significant. That’s partly due to the lack of imagination of many of their contemporaries, but even within their guitar band parameters, this group has still managed to subvert convention on a regular basis.
"Wild Beasts’ tools are well-worn, but their results are utterly distinctive"
It’s happened partly due to the quirks of their charismatic, occasionally androgynous frontman. Thorpe’s voice frequently gets the “Marmite” tag, and his flamboyant, urbane presence – musically, lyrically and physically – is too much for some. And those are good things. Divisive art is infinitely more interesting than safely pleasant fare. Driven by a clarity of intent, a single-minded desire to express things about the male psyche that do not receive frequent mainstream attention, Wild Beasts were one of the most original bands of their generation. If such a thing exists.
So yes, Wild Beasts’ tools are well-worn, but their results are utterly distinctive. In an era that sees a band like Blossoms offered the Mercury seal of critical approval, they’re a band that matters. I have nothing personal against Blossoms, by the way, but the fact that they were included on a list that’s ostensibly intended as a recognition of important, progressive work just doesn’t sit well with me.
Wild Beasts have shared a live studio LP, Last Night All My Dreams Came True, by way of farewell ahead of their final show. As they bow out, we’ll lose a band of real importance, not only as an individual group but as a symbol of indie’s residual ability to challenge, to push forward, to stare life in the face rather than retreat into the open arms and rotting corpse of nostalgia.
If these are the end times for the relevance of British indie rock as we know it, then so be it. If, however, there’s still sufficient appetite for this stuff – as those sold-out Libertines and Kooks tours attest that there is – then the new generation should look upon Wild Beasts as an exemplary group. Those thousands of fans deserve brilliance like theirs.