Over the past decade, Wild Beasts have garnered a reputation for releasing music that errs on the side of being more than a tad melancholy. Their fourth album – 2014’s Present Tense – was an observational, bitter and pretty sombre affair. At that point, you could accuse the band of toning down their sound in the years following the flamboyant theatricalities of debut album Limbo, Panto; the vocal dexterities of Hayden Thorpe have certainly been rained in by comparison of their early work, as has their audial flamboyance, with the melodramatic arrangements being channelled down a route of synths and beats.
Their latest album, Boy King, adds swagger and funk to the mix. According to Thorpe, he realised – during a post-break-up gloom – that he was just as bad as the macho-men that the band had been lampooning all these years. What resulted from that epiphany are songs such as lead single ‘Get My Bang’ which – despite being a hypersexual ode at first glance – serves as a double-entendre for the lengths people go to so as to gain gratification in modern consumerist society.
“If they’re hungry then just let them eat cake,” Thorpe declares in the song, and cake is what we get. Created with Jon Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans), Boy King is bold and crammed with bravado; the band regains some of that aforementioned theatricality – but it’s streamlined. The songs are leaner and the bass meaner, ‘Tough Guy’ being centred on a great, stomping pop hook, whilst ‘Ponytail’ shifts to purring seduction.
Wild Beasts have never been one to shy away from discussing gender throughout their back catalogue, and it crops up once again on songs such as the male-to-female adoration of the clinically aggressive (yet still groovy) ‘Alpha Female’ and the hyper-masculine references in ‘Big Cat’. In that way Boy King is almost tyrannical in its intent, being a near constant barrage of audial and metaphorical virility that – whilst not being absent from the output of recent years – had been duly tucked away. There’s little in the way of “slower” moments, ‘Celestial Creatures’ being a welcome reprieve – yet even that holds an ominous undercurrent – and in turn, ‘Dreamliner’ is practically a salve to the burn when it arrives at the end of the album.
One crying shame is the large absence of the twin vocal harmonies that they had become so known for, so much so that the presence of Tom Fleming is apparent only via his – admittedly prominent – basslines. Then again, there’s not much room for subtlety or sentimentality here, and that itself pretty much surmises Boy King; it is a new beast, a powerful one that prowls under neon lights and decimates all unnecessary endeavour. Is this the future for Wild Beasts? Perhaps not, but it is very much the present.