When they announced themselves in 2008 as the weirdest, most tragically mustachioed band in recent Brit-pop history, Wild Beasts were a band that defied characterization, and couldn’t be plugged into any genre. They dipped and dodged with each song, refusing any kind of yoke that could be put on them. Which is why it’s disappointing to see them, via album number three, Smother, excising the nutty joviality that propelled their first two albums, and replacing it with ten ballads that are more theatrical than a West End play. Where there used to be songs you could dance to, bizarre songs about old people and soccer, and songs about hooting and howling, there are instead songs about albatrosses, bearing the load, and things coming to end to soon.
Not that there’s anything wrong, necessarily, with turning in a downtrodden album. Lead single “Albatross,” with it’s up and down, wavering choruses, has the quirky touches that got these guys signed to Domino. “Reach A Bit Further” is about the saddest plea for love you’ve heard in a song with prominent use of xylophone: “And I will do all of the things that you ask of me,” Tom Fleming intones here in the choruses. “Plaything,” and its perfect first verse salvo—“I know I’m not any kind of heartthrob”—is as close to a mission statement as these guys have. They may be the pasty, high-voiced fellas in the corner listening to Orange Juice records, but at the same time, they’re “not some kind of slobs.”
But where they used to break up the monotony of their theater-leaning inclinations with songs with faster BPMs, on Smother, the album becomes a slog, as Wild Beasts settle for knocking out a bunch of forgettable slow burners. Their last album, 2009’s Two Dancers, was apparently a bellwether for this one; it too was heavy on the slow stuff, but Smother might be the album with the slightest pulse we’ve heard all year. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to expect these guys to knock us out with each album, but Smother can’t help but feel like a misstep. But then again, maybe it’s just Wild Beasts’-- who are still the most interesting British indie band at this juncture-- newest way of skirting expectations.
Wild Beasts, a.k.a., one of the few times NME hype was merited, follow up their 2009 breakout Two Dancers with Smother – an album emphasized dense, synthesized, and erm, smothering sounds. Accordingly the album’s influences include a relocation to Dalston, Clarice Lispector, Fuck Buttons, and the original Mary Shelley version of Frankenstein. Singer Hayden Thorpe said, like Frankenstein, they’ve “always felt like this odd creature that’s sort of hard to love.” If they keep making the songs they do, I’m sure we’ll keep finding ways to love them.