With their deliriously odd dissections of modern masculinity, the Kendal four-piece were that critically endangered species in UK music – a provincial indie band with ideas to burn
For an indie music fan in the dog days of 2006, Wild Beasts were almost too good to be true. I first saw them at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, then playing host to such avatars of the genre’s demise as Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads, and they stood out a mile from the warmed-over post-punk of the era. Propelled by a wonderful, lolloping rhythm section and Benny Little’s lilting, jazzy guitar chords, the deal was sealed by Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s showstopping, odd-couple vocals, the former a silky baritone foil to the latter’s rasping falsetto wail. Thorpe’s voice, in particular, stood out as a defiantly eccentric ‘fuck you’ to the ever-decreasing circles UK guitar music was content to run in, wrapped around lyrics that satirised the limited horizons of working-class life in their native Cumbria. “Indie music’s become almost like a badge of shame,” I remember Fleming telling me around the time – but if any one band tried jolting it back to life in the 00s, it was Wild Beasts.
The group’s debut Limbo, Panto remains, in some ways, their most startling statement to that effect, graced by a clutch of tracks – “His Grinning Skull”, “Woebegone Wanderers”, “The Old Dog” – as thrillingly strange as any from the era. Best of all was “The Devil’s Crayon”, an ecstatic duet between Fleming and Thorpe that pulled at the heartstrings even as you wondered what the hell any of it was about: “And we are so much moulded dough,” goes the killer refrain from the song. Wild Beasts learned to temper their excesses on 2009’s Two Dancers, a surprisingly limber, sensual record that in some ways presaged indie music’s move towards R&B (The xx’s debut appeared just a week later) while still finding time to slip their trademark ribaldry in between the sheets, as on “All the King’s Men”s wicked elegy for a ladies’ man: “All you pretty things waiting for somebody / Number my babies and my broken body.”
Stylistic oddities aside, it was Wild Beasts’ witty, pained deconstructions of modern masculinity that marked them out as originals – a legacy worth considering, if you take The Guardian’s claim that 2016 was the ‘year of the ambiguous male’ at face value. During the band’s fledgling years, male guitar groups in the UK clung ever-closer to the laddy template of Britpop, and ‘provincial’ indie had begun a slow slide into irrelevance that it’s yet to recover from some ten years later. Wild Beasts, mixing their lyrical yen for hairy-palmed hetero males with nods to Kate Bush and Henri Matisse, stood apart from all of that. What’s more, they boasted two songwriters of real distinction in Thorpe and Fleming, and each of the group’s players brought their own distinctive sensibilities to the mix.
Their best exploration of the cherished theme of manhood – and apotheosis as a band – was 2011’s Smother, which saw Thorpe and Fleming spin rueful tales of infidelity and thwarted desire over a set of almost suffocating beauty. If there was, somewhere, a caveat in all of this, it was that the band – by this point, an infinitely more refined proposition than the one that cut Limbo, Panto – was shorn of the eccentricities that made them so unique in the first place. You could chalk that up to age, perhaps, but it’s interesting that the smoothing-away of the band’s jagged edges coincided roughly with their move to London after Limbo, Panto – a reminder, perhaps, of what gets lost when creative voices fail to get heard outside of the capital.
2014’s Present Tense saw the band pare away at their sound once again to reveal the bittersweet essence at their core, though the high drama of their early material was somewhat absent. It’s a fact the band may have sensed in throwing the kitchen sink at Boy King, a misguided swing at big-league success that couldn’t quite conceal their awkward pop genius (“Celestial Creatures”, “2BU”). If it’s not quite the swansong they deserve, the band’s decision to go their own separate ways this weekend feels brave and timely in a way that’s fitting for a group whose daring body of work stands as a tantalising ‘What if?’ for British indie music. One more happy memory from the band in their prime: Hayden Thorpe, tipsy at a bar in Paris after a show in support of Two Dancers, explained how he’d made peace with the fact that the band would not, after all, end up becoming the new Radiohead, as he’d once secretly dared to imagine. They did better than that – they were the only Wild Beasts.