Tom Andrew

Wild Beasts Wrestle With The Contradictions Of Masculinity On Boy King

The U.K. band’s fifth album turns to rock aggression without losing any of their subtle wit

Speaking with a Q journalist in 1992, around the time of his third solo album, Your Arsenal, Morrissey opened up about his first time taking Ecstasy. In “the most astonishing moment of my life,” he said, he “looked in the mirror and saw somebody very, very attractive.” The anecdote is caricature at its finest — the infamous egomaniac indulging in his own good looks. And yet the moment still comes across as deeply personal. “It was astonishing for that hour, or for however long it was, to look into the mirror and really, really like what came back at me,” he said. It wasn’t about vanity at all in the end; it was about the opposite: an indulgence in self-love at odds with Morrissey’s famed melancholy in The Smiths, his perpetual longing for emotion and people he can’t have, even his own cynicism and humor.

Your Arsenal signaled an about-face toward a harder strain of rock in Morrissey’s solo work — he recruited Bowie collaborator Mick Ronson to glam up his sound for an album that largely looked back at his own youth in 1970s England. Boy King, the fifth LP from British four-piece Wild Beasts, finds the band in a similar movement of sound — leaning away from the more effeminate art-rock of past albums and toward a puffed-up, nervy brand of rock courtesy of producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans). And like Morrissey’s soul-searching moment in that mirror, Wild Beasts have tapped into their own mode of self-reflection in the process: They spend the album wringing out and satirizing the many ways masculinity plays out in Western culture, whether it be in sex, commerce, or the self, through a new alter ego: the Boy King.

This isn’t entirely new territory for Wild Beasts. The band’s lyrics often focus on sexuality, particularly concerning its performativity for men, inspired by their time growing up in the U.K. “England is quite conservative in a lot of ways — if you're a man, you're supposed to be a man in all its negative connotations,” singer Tom Fleming said in 2010. “We play to the more feminine aspects in some ways, you know. It's not necessarily rock music — it's a bit more textured.”

With Boy King, all those negative connotations are on full display in a biting dissection of macho bullshit. There is still plenty of texture in the sound — distorted guitars and looping pitch-shifted vocals — but the majority of Boy King is intentionally aggro. Where albums like 2009's Two Dancers and 2011's Smother were decadent and plush, everything sounds electrocuted on Boy King. Songs like “Alpha Female” and “Get My Bang” swagger with interlocking drums and synths, while “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” and “Celestial Creatures” are run through with warped synth lines that deconstruct by song’s end.

“Now I'm all fucked up and I can't stand up, so I better suck it up like a tough guy would,” singer Hayden Thorpe strains on album highlight “Tough Guy,” making clear a through-line in the work: Expectations of men can be as venomous as the fallout they leave behind for women and other men. On “Get My Bang,” that translates to consumerism, too: “If they're hungry then just let them eat cake,” Thorpe sneers. The cumulative effect of these songs can be taxing, much like enduring the performance of masculinity in real life. But Wild Beasts keep the album engaging through winding melodies and vocal irreverence. Thorpe and Fleming are experts at manipulating their voices between falsettos and deep lower registers — a tightrope act that has always been a big part of Wild Beasts’ appeal.

Yet Boy King can’t help but feel like a small departure. This is a group who cite Rimbaud and Baudelaire as central influences, who quoted lines from Hélène Cixous in past lyrics, who create decadent, succinct, sometimes bawdy songs that count Morrissey and The Smiths as forebears as much as posturing U.K. rock groups like The Libertines — but who also made songs that invoked professional wrestlers on their previous effort, 2014’s exceptional Present Tense. Wild Beasts have created a lane all their own; since their earliest days, the band has always made clear its sense of humor and irony.

Boy King turns that irony into truth, creating a character that heaves with red-blooded, oversexed affectations and desires that are as off-putting as they are compelling. “That hyper-male character is in me, I’m a guy in a band, for god's sake,” Thorpe said in an interview about the album last month. “My projection of self, my projection of identity is pretty large. I guess it's dealing with the crux of that because you have to ask, what is that masking? What insecurities and vulnerabilities is that masking?”

Like Morrissey peering into the mirror, Wild Beasts are taking stock of their own uncertainty — and it’s thrilling to hear.