The last we heard from Wild Beasts, they were singing “Don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck.” The lyric arrived during the final movement of “Wanderlust”, the lead single from 2014 LP Present Tense, and it marked the high point of the band’s accomplished weariness. Somehow Wild Beasts managed to sound fatigued and energized at once, someone who could be confused for having fucks to give. Part of the band’s charm has been their ability to create beautifully byzantine displays of angst.
On the band’s fifth LP, Boy King, they ditch any sonic self-consciousness in favor of slinky electronic arrangements. But, while the music glitters and struts, the lyrics concern the damage of modern masculinity. Believing it’s possible to critique toxic masculinity, even while displaying it proudly, Boy King approaches a kind of social satire. The band seeks provocation, allegedly for good — a manual on “What Not to Do in 2016.” Even with the neon synthesizers turned up to a million and the bass lines roving rapaciously in search of hips to move, at its best, you still might mistake Wild Beasts for a band that gives a fuck. But you also might wonder if they’ve carved away the best parts of themselves in a cruel evolution.
Lead track “Big Cat” suggests a band who has firmly ditched any self-consciousness whatsoever. Consider the weight of the following combination of nouns: “Big Cat” by Wild Beasts, featuring the hook, “Big cat, top of the food chain.” It sounds like apex predation at its finest, the rock equivalent of a rap diss track. The band is hunting now, and in a Darwinist hellscape, they don’t intend on dying. But, the violence of this track, and others, is implicit, and often troubling. “Alpha female, I’m right behind you,” they coo on the buzzy “Alpha Female”. It’s unsettling, creepy, even if you listen for the song’s foregrounding lyrics of alleged female empowerment: “I will not hold you back.” On Boy King, even bizarro feminism sounds strange.
Songs like “Get My Bang” trend toward the truly sordid, pushing licentiousness behind a thinly veiled double entendre. The hook to “2BU” has its own strange darkness: “You know that I’m the worst/ When I come calling/ Best hope that I don’t find you first.” The band pursues all of this grimy lyrical violence behind their most bombastic, electronic arrangements to date. Listeners won’t miss the mixture of form meeting function here: Boy King is trying to kill you. The degree to which this approach is problematic resides in how seriously the listener takes Wild Beasts’ claim to be satirizing toxic masculinity. To what degree does the conspicuous displaying of toxic masculinity reify it and to what degree does it unwire it?
There’s sonic beauty everywhere in Boy King. The arrangements are impeccable and frequently ingenuous, but the album doesn’t yield much on repeated listens. Somehow the humanity of Wild Beasts’ previous work is nowhere here. The songs’ construction begins to feel antiseptic. Lyrics like “I like it messy, don’t you make it neat/ Your heart I’d eat” (from “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis”) are intentionally precise, convincing the listener of a corporeal pathology more than the one-step-removed theory. Even if it’s well-meaning, Boy King is a disconcertingly bleak portrait done without blinking.
By the end of Boy King, listeners may have considered deeply the shape and danger of modern manhood, of institutional misogyny, of the many hidden aspects and coded linguistics of rape culture. They will definitely, however, long for a band who only might have a few fucks left to give.
Essential Tracks: “Big Cat”, “Alpha Female”, and “2BU”