This article originally appeared on God Is In The TV
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 foursome sometimes feel like they’re struggling to achieve either, particularly in the first few tracks. Musically, the record follows on pretty much where 2014’s Present Tense left off, 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 necessarily lie in the music. It lies in the overbearing attitude and overly direct lyrics, where the band seem to have lost all their previous subtlety. 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 particularly 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 overly macho posturing. To its credit, 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. Similarly, ‘Big Cat’ pulls off a relatively decent metaphor, with the titular beast being “top of the food chain” and “on top” in a sexual sense, but all but destroys it with the line “you can look but don’t touch.” Not only is it objectifying, but it also makes the listener question how the implied sex is actually happening.
In complete fairness, the album picks up a lot 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 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.
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 is far from being their crowning glory.