Up until Boy King, Wild Beasts have been a band of expertly incremental change. Their music has always been about tension, principally the tension between love and violence. Dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have long sang about the interplay between sex and love, but as their work has progressed, the latter has been increasingly highlighted. Their initially bawdy sound has gradually been sanded down, peaking with 2014’s breathtakingly beautiful Present Tense. Fleming described that album as comprised entirely of “love songs”, but in an impressive left turn, Boy King is made up only of “f**k songs”. However, the record is more complex, and less regressive than it initially seems, and is in fact an examination of what form masculinity takes in times of political turbulence.
Boy King very much feels like an album that could have only been made in 2016. The sense of contentment and hope that pervaded Present Tense’s shimmering ballads has been all but erased, replaced by a primacy and viciousness that eclipses even the band’s own infamously vulgar early work. The band’s career has been marked by wordy, elegant statements that mask an underlying menace (their debut single was titled Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants), but much of that eloquence has been abandoned on Boy King, and replaced by a shocking directness. Where once Thorpe would “take you in my mouth like a lion takes his game”, now he just wants to “get my bang”.
If the album is about the descent of men into viscousness, the band has littered the album with hints as to its cause. Thorpe drops the infamous Mary Antoinette quote “let them eat cake” into lead single Get My Bang’s first verse. Over a White Stripes-esque guitar squall, Tough Guy features lines like “virtue won’t get you where you need to get to”. The coda of the soaring Celestial Creatures is a repeated mantra: “these are blessed times we’re living in / down here on earth all is forgiven”. Thorpe has described Boy King as being an “apocalyptic record” about “swimming in the abyss”, and that holds true throughout the album. It feels darker, and more hedonistic than anything they’ve created before, and it has some truly affecting moments, like the stunning closer Dreamliner. The instrumental is uncharacteristically sombre, at first consisting of just muted piano chords, before being complimented by apocalyptic choral samples. Thorpe sings “begin again” over and over, as though he’s despairing at what the world has reduced him to.
Wild Beasts recruited famed super-producer John Congleton for Boy King, and his influence has more than paid off. Their previous work has largely been characterised by it smallness and elegance, with each album stripping away more and more elements, leading to Present Tense’s minimalist beauty. However, Boy King is a different beast entirely. The band taps into a few different sounds, like the disco-rock of Get My Bang, or the jittering funk of Ponytail, but the unifying themes are abrasiveness and sheer volume. Every sound, including the vocals has a grimy, digital sheen, which compliments the frank sensuality of the lyrics. Guitar is featured more often than on any album since their debut, but even it is put through filter after filter, often being indiscernible from the screaming synths. Boy King builds on the band’s previous work, but turns in a whole new direction, and sonically, it is phenomenal, maintaining its energy throughout.
The most apt point of comparison for Boy King is actually Kanye West’s Yeezus. Like Boy King, that album was about feeling repressed by an increasingly frightening society, and responding by lashing out with anger and raw sexuality. It combined distorted, abrasive sonics with infamously crass lyrics, which actually held more significance than many initially believed. Boy King isn’t a protest record exactly, it’s politics are too vague, hidden under layers of grime, but it is a reactionary one. It’s a record about finding your worst self in the face of societal collapse, and is a remarkable achievement from one of the best, most consistent bands working today.