How Wild Beasts 'Smother' Changed My Life

by - Monday, October 09, 2017

After much soul-searching and painstaking consideration as I try and come to terms with the announcement of their split a couple of weeks ago, I think I've finally found the words to write about my favourite record of all time (so far)– Smother by Wild Beasts. Applauded both commercially and critically, it is a record I believe to be as close to perfect as it is possible for an album to be – hitting the sweet spot between signature-sound and forward-thinking experimentation, between romance and desire, between mortality and euphoria. Taking in a broad sphere of influence from music, literature and anthropology, it is a record that I feel distils the very essence of gender and sexuality in the millennial realm.

Personally speaking, I feel kinship with Smother on a number of levels. It was released two days before my 18th birthday, the symbolism of which seems almost kismet; a record about sexual discovery, loss and the burdening responsibility of ones mistakes coming about just as I was legally becoming an adult, leaving behind everything I knew and rebuilding myself as something other than somebody else's child. Where Wild Beasts were a Yorkshire band who had exiled themselves to London to make a record, I was a Southerner on the cusp of moving to Yorkshire for University, feeling both alienated and refreshed by the change in surroundings. Although I had been a casual fan of their music for a while, something about Smother felt like a huge advancement at that time of my life – the university environment was alien and claustrophic and yet obviously bursting with new opportunities to learn, make friends and grow outside the family unit. As someone with a fairly sheltered upbringing, I relied on academia for a large dose of my self-worth, which left me with few life skills in my arsenal – mainly a hefty dose of nervousness, social inexperience and an interest in English literature from having studied Frankenstein at A-Level, a book whose words are referenced amongst the lyrics of Smother.

As a band, Wild Beasts are a act who positively emanate intrigue. They make no qualms about their own intellectual ambition. The complexity they bring to their music both lyrically and musically is something that I always felt warranted further study, unpacking what it means to make music that is inherently northern, manly and fatalistic, and yet cosmopolitan, soft, vulnerable. They sound unmistakeably like the north, and yet if compared to recent bands of similar geography – Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Oasis – they are clearly misfits. Not quite indie but not quite pop, not avant-garde but only just electronic, theirs is a sound that marks them out as different, reflective of the short attention span that exemplifies our times.

This quest to become the acceptable face of intellectualism pushed the band to reflect on popular musics failsafe theme for 'Smother'– the complexities of Love. Arguably the most timeless trope of popular music, it’s strength lies in the fact that there are few sensations like it - all-consuming in it’s power to both build and destroy, many a man has fallen foul to it’s powers. When the quest for love conflicts with the quest for sex, however, you have yourself a very potent mix…

From the pulsing lasciviousness of ‘Lions Share’ right through to the loin-tightening tension of ‘End Come Too Soon’, Smother is 42 minutes and two seconds of pure lust, as bolshy as it is fragile. It’s a collection of familiar tales dressed up in poetry – of craving affection and being let down when it doesn’t arrive, of wanting to remain monogamous when ones primal instincts are craving the opposite. All of the traditional tropes are in place, but they have been polished to a sheen - the male perspective versus the female, the desire to fuck versus the desire to make love, the gentleman versus the millennial lad. Released a mere fortnight before pop behemoth Lady Gaga shocked the world with gender-positive second record ‘Born This Way (a track off of which Wild Beasts went on to remix for it’s deluxe reboot), the dissection of what it meant to be a modern man, female or indeed something in between, had begun.

But it isn’t just about gender – Smother is also a tale of class and geography. Well coiffed, dressed in tweed and talking in gruff (Tom) and effeminate (Hayden) tones, it would be easy to assume on appearance that this was a band born from regal blood, back-slapping one another after a ruddy good game of polo while the wife prepares dinner. The truth is quite the opposite – ‘Not only are we English, but we're from Northern England, which is a very repressed place and, to be macho, that's always about strength and power if you're a man,’ explained Tom in conversation with Under The Radar Magazine. ‘ We think it's important to notice its opposite, so we've made this album almost like female writers, we want to provide an alternative voice for masculinity. Not exactly more human, but maybe more humanistic, more understanding about people's weaknesses.'

If being ‘humanistic’ is to look at natural behavior not just through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the behaviourist too, then it is a word that perfectly befits the band’s biggest lyrical fixation. From their very beginning, Wild Beasts lyrical themes are that of anthropology, not always modern. Their very essence revolves tightly around the human form, with strong connotations of sexuality and the relationship between emotional and physical impulse. Unsurprisingly, Smother pushed this calling card further, but for the first time, it explored things from a more considered and, dare it be said, mature angle – ‘Burning’ for instance has all of it’s guards down, bordering on Shakespearean in it’s despair, whereas ‘Bed Of Nails’ is heady with request, imploring the unnamed amour to ‘surround me like a warm bath.” Altogether, it marks a significantly more sensual approach from a band whose earlier lyrics once boasted of a ‘dancing cock’.

Putting their adour through a more sultry filter, the albums artwork becomes a natural extension of those heady emotions. Designed by Jason Evans, a photographer who has also produced artwork for the likes of Caribou and Four Tet, the brief he was set for the record was simple: include feathers at all costs. This decision was not merely aesthetic. Feathers mean pillows, and pillows are the ultimate metaphor; soft and comforting, yet innately sensual or even, in deviant hands, threatening. The cover art and albums title sees the very concept of sweet ‘pillow talk’ interfering with the ability to ‘smother’ somebody with too much affection, like someone might smother somebody with a pillow.

Despite shrouding much of their music in flowery metaphor, there is no getting away from the directness of some of the records lyrics, the most risqué of which are delivered by Thorpe. As he implores the unnamed female of ‘Plaything’ to ‘unfold my body’, and in ‘Lion’s Share’ tell her that he plans to ‘take her in (his) mouth like a lion takes his game’, bandmate Fleming is somewhat more romantic, merely informing his beloved that she has ‘walked through his dreams’ (‘Invisible’) and that he will ‘do anything that you ask’ (‘Reach A Bit Further’).

With frankness their forte, it’s clear that Smother is more of a ‘relationship’ album, as opposed to the two-dimensional lustiness of ‘Two Dancers. Appearing regularly on ‘best of the year’ rundowns (with an impressive metacritic score of 85 out of 100) and shifting a promising 30,000 copies in it’s first year, Smother pushed Wild Beasts out of the cult, eccentric shadows with which they had been flirting and out on to the world’s stage, even if only by a few steps.

Delicate and easily damaged like a single feather, but yet with the definitive spirit of a bird taking flight, Smother explores love from all it’s angles and comes off altogether more intoxicating for it. Critically respected but still not quite mainstream, they live their truth – sex without commitment, romance without the picture-book ending. But what did you expect from a band obsessed with living on the outside? In my eyes, it's the most lasting testament to the band they were, and to the lessons they've taught me - that every encounter has it's darkness, every darkness holds some magic and every moment of romance, however fleeting, is worth holding on to.

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