The night’s been blessed: Why Wild Beasts mattered
Yesterday, Kendal four-piece Wild Beasts announced they were separating.
For those who don’t know the band it’s perhaps hard to see exactly what the fuss is about – another indie band gone the way of the Maccabees, hardly headline news in 2017. Yet those who do know them, who have known them, understand this marks the end of one of the UK’s most quietly brilliant groups. Artists out of time, always pulling gently against the common thread.
They arrived in 2005, midway through the decade of The Streets and an era which pedestaled kitchen sink wit and fly-on-the-wall narrative. Two-years before Wild Beasts’, Arctic Monkey’s debut Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not (also released on Domino) set the lens through which the nocturnal adventuring of early adulthood played out in the imagination. These were tough-minded, unfantastic times that favoured the sardonic, the hard-nosed.
Against that backdrop, the four-piece from the Lake District were absurd and aggressively out of step. Hayden Thorpe’s voice, this outrageous, treacly falsetto singing of “brave, bulging, buoyant clairvoyants,” backed by Tom Fleming, his muscular, earnest counterweight. Behind them, guitarist Ben Little’s guitar-lines jangled like sleigh bells, and Chris Talbot’s drumming popped and pounded. Their debut album, Limbo Panto (2008) was a gaudy tapestry of Sunday league football, “pilfered pies and pints in wobbly hands” and “huffing and puffing on mattress stuffing” – all sung with carnivalesque vigour. They were a bewildering proposition, and one many found off-putting, but for those who didn’t seduction proved irresistible.
On their second album, Two Dancers, they toned down their more histrionic tendencies, but in this maturation hit new heights. Their tales of the drunken underworld retained their humour, but were given a renewed heft. All the King’s Men and Hooting and Howling cast their male protagonists as headstrong idiots and “dribbling dogs”, while never dismissing their vulnerability or capacity to be remade by the night. “By the milky light of the mighty moon, Find someone to nuzzle to, And waltz from the room,” goes This is Our Lot. Wild Beasts were Romantics, in the most heavily felt, Wordsworthian sense of the word. Through them, England, sex, and the nocturnal, became remarkable.
It’s ultimately inaccurate to call them Romantics though. They’ve always been Fauvists at heart – their band-name originally starting life as Fauve – bold, brash, carnivorous and orgiac. Smother, which arrived in 2011, is their most carnal record by far. Inspired by Shelley’s Frankenstein, the record was as violent as it was tender in its attempts to decode the “design and desire” of human relationships. With this album their understanding of sex, like their understanding of the night, grew from crass innuendo into something full and fleshy. It’s as spectacular as they ever got. The dancing lines of Loop the Loop, the self-flagellations of Burning, or the goosebump-inducing album closer End Come Too Soon.
Their work since, on Present Tense (2014) and most recently Boy King (2016), has seen them condense their intentions into pop songs, communicating the same punch drunk sentiment through electronic palettes and shorter running times. The plush groove of Mecca, the heartbreak of Palace, the lascivious snarl of Get My Bang. Key to their endurance has been this coherence: a conceptual consistency that has seen them deal with recurrent demons – shame, lust and regret. Whether playful or broken-hearted, they have returned to the same places, the same backstreets and gullies, the same fallacies and urges.
Cast your mind back to any drunk stumble home, any one night stand, any stupid relationship-ruining misdemeanour. To the rest of the world you likely looked ridiculous – toppling forwards over bins, panting in your socks, blubbing like a child – but to you, in the well of your imagination, the moment was a ground-swell, it was eternal. Wild Beasts saw what everyone else saw: that bad sex, bar-fights and booze-battered walks home look ugly. Yet their greatest trick was recognising that they never feel that way. They engaged sincerely with the drunken majesty of ego, and caught it when it all came crashing down.
In their farewell note, Wild Beasts write “We’ve created something quite of our own and created a body of work which we standby as heartfelt and true.”
I could talk about this band for hours but I’d struggle to put their legacy in more simple terms than that. At the end of their hugely productive, rich career as a band, they deserve more than a moment’s celebration for just how doggedly and effectively they went against the grain. How they painted the ordinary in thick brushstrokes and delicate notes. How little they flinched. There’s a difference between realistic and truthful, and Wild Beasts truly understood that.
Across a career spanning 15 years and five studio albums, they built a world both muscular and intricate. They released five albums – four of which remain close to impeccable, and a fifth which may enjoy a revisionist history. They won Mercury and Ivor Novello nominations, they headlined festivals. But it will forever prove hard to know under which chapter to file Wild Beasts in the history books. They don’t belong to any recent trend any more than they belong to this century.
Perhaps then they will be remembered as a band who belonged to their devotees. For them – the woebegone wanderers – the end it came and went too soon.
Wild Beasts headline Simple Things Festival on 21 October