I was expecting an album filled with dubstep-style over the top electro-synth beats. I was expecting an album that was more like Tiesto circa 2011. When I saw the names of the tracks on Boy King, I then expected ethereal, folksy tunes set to the tone of predator felines prowling the jungle stealthily. The track names progress from the sinuous velveteen expectation to a display of machismo and, well, the over the top beats I thought I would receive.
It’s no secret that I find my new music by a combination of Top 100 searches and YouTube mixes of a song I particularly favor. My listening tastes recently have featured the likes of Bryson Tiller, Jhene Aiko, Childish Gambino, DVSN, Gallant and more soul/R&B/contemporary rap artists. If a song doesn’t evoke something in me, then is it even worth listening to? Pop songs are churned out all the time with the same progression monotonously resounding in the background, like “Out Of The Woods” by Taylor Swift, a song that lulls you into a dazed stupor as you try to remember whether the song ever started or whether it will ever end. In fact, after a cursory Google search on who on earth Wild Beasts were, I was pretty surprised at myself for never listening to their songs before (why am I constantly getting surprised at lack of pop culture awareness, like, why?)
Before delving into listening to Boy King with my preconceived notions, I checked out a few songs from Smother (2011), the album before the last album they released. I loved the minimalist approach of the songs, with clear vocals and a beat that rings but doesn’t overwhelm the music. I loved the use of percussion and bass, and I got a slight Beatles + Arctic Monkeys + The Smiths vibe with a whole lot of indie and dreamlike gauziness thrown in. “Plaything” was by far my favorite song from Smother, and I swear once I’m done with Boy King, I’ll go and give Smother a closer look. It was not something I expected out of Boy King going on; the cover art and the description was enough to convince me that Wild Beasts have drastically reconfigured their image in the last couple of years. Perhaps because I’ve immersed myself into the downtempo indie pop styles of artists like Chet Faker in the last few years, I missed out on the wackier side of the Top 100.
1. Big Cat
I had to go and recheck I was listening to the right song! Let me explain. When I was in Madrid this summer, I went to this rock bar that had these up and coming artists perform live. This duo called Juno & Darrell mixed contemporary synthesizer music with Afro-Ethiopian funk and folk. “Big Cat” sounded so similar to the vibe Juno & Darrell were trying to achieve, but Wild Beasts had polished and refined the song to the point where I hadn’t even felt Big Cat rooting itself organically into my head. The new-age Afro-American inspired funk notes were evident in the chorus, perhaps not entirely unexpected considering the title.
Favorite Lyric: “Get back big cat, having none of that, safe words you can’t retract.”
“Big Cat” is by no means a very strong start to the album, but it opens up a curiosity towards the somewhat restrained wildness and beastliness the band’s name promises. While most people would associate a jungle cat to be powerful, untouchable and inexplicably female, “Big Cat” undermines that instantly by masculinizing the metaphorical “cat.” With an unmistakable tone of mockery, Wild Beasts sets the listener up for a climax, a fall, a potential degradation of self-perceived masculine grandeur. I like this message already.
2. Tough Guy
Lyrically, this song crushes the portrayal of “masculine feelings.” It absolutely hits all the right notes on the Tough Guy Syndrome™, bottling up emotions because its somehow wrong to display them until all you’re left with is holes in your heart that nothing fills. Suck it up, be a man, grow some balls, toughen up, boys don’t cry. That’s what boys are taught. That crying is weak, it’s girlish, it’s feminine to display the goddamn emotions you are meant to. That somehow only women are emotional, and if boys do it, there’s something wrong with them. We’ve all had that one “friend” who manages to display their ridiculous levels of sexism and homophobia with comments like “OMG he’s so sensitive and so emotional. He must be gay.”
… After a certain point you feel like you have to conserve what little brain cells are clinging on to dear life in your head and stop arguing with idiots like them.
Favorite Lyric: “Even though we’re tough, there are holes in us, we try to fill them up, but we’re no big enough”
“Tough Guy” reminds me of an Arcade Fire song written by Twenty One Pilots. It sounds as generic as any other psychedelic indie British rock music sounds. If not for the progressive lyrics, it would have been a very safe song to include on the album. The drum beat is pleasing enough to bob your head to, and the almost crooning nature of the vocals elicits twangs of sympathy for the self-stylized “Tough Guy,” an impressive feat. It will probably end up being the most listened to song for me on this album, even though I did like some other songs on the album. “Tough Guy” will outlast the new just-discovered sounds of the other songs only because it vaguely sounds like a LOT of other music out there.
3. Alpha Female
I had very high hopes for this song solely based on the title. I’d come out of “Tough Guy” knowing that Wild Beasts was capable of some lyrical meaning, but disappointing is an understatement. Earlier on in this review, I mentioned about the mindless droning on of some repetitive songs like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or Pharrell’s “Happy.” At least they had the decency to be upbeat and chipper, making them good summer anthems to hum to yourself. But Alpha Female continues the same tone and style as “Tough Guy,” with the falsetto voice and electro-rock progression. But while Tough Guy kept enough of your attention on the lyrics, “Alpha Female” is a continuous declaration of support and alliance.
After a couple more listens, it dawned on me that perhaps Wild Beasts wanted to continue the Tough Guy Syndrome™ by calling out the support that is supposedly given by men who believe in traditional roles of patriarchal masculinity and femininity. Perhaps that’s the reason the lyrics repeat in a non-creative attempt to be reassuring, which inevitable exposes that the purveyor of the message might not really meant it. I guess if you feel particularly cynical that day, skip this one, because the lyrics might sound as if they’re testing you to get up and smack that smug macho-ness off the singer’s face.
4. Get My Bang
First single off Boy King, “Get My Bang” personifies and represents the comprehensive message behind the album: getting a fix and succumbing to your basest desires, your constant longing to fulfill and feed the wild side. It tries to embody the primitive side of humans, the “beast,” if you will. But instead of an over-tempo frenzy of a song, “Get My Bang” manages to balance the wild percussive racing beat of your heart with vocals that almost whine for “a bang,” that got him “blubbing like a jealous child”. It isn’t a rage filled lust, but a drug he can’t live without. I guess that’s the overarching theme of this album really – a self-deprecating view on manhood in general and a callout to the overly greedy and needy culture of people these days.
It’s not exactly unfettered, but a restrained portrayal musically. Personally, this song reminded me a lot of Foster The People, who have a knack for jauntily singing about topics that are usually not discussed in open conversation.
Favorite Lyric: “If they’re hungry then just let them eat cake”
Literally. It’s like an anvil sized anti-corporate message dropped onto your head, that line. To be honest though, the song even feels slightly pretentious to me with all the pressure to fit in to modern “wild” society clearly written all over the song. Nothing can be taken at face value with these songs I think.
5. Celestial Creatures
The psychedelic nature of the xylophone sounding electronic notes halfway through the song makes me think the perfect music video for this would be a space journey hopped up on LSD flying through a kaleidoscopic time warp. It’s got a modern 70’s vibe to it, and for a tiny micro-second, I heard a bit of Bowie in the first verse. The keyboard is used most significantly here, but even while depicting the god-like status the poor assign the rich with the status quo sipping champagne up in The Shard, Celestial Creatures sounds uplifting and promising.
I can practically hear Lorde crooning “And we’ll never be royaaaals…. Rooyaaaals” in the background. Wild Beasts shares the same sentiment, with a bit of existentialism, naivety, and acceptance of their position “down here on earth.”
Favorite lyric:“Put on your big coat, your only hope the only thing to keep your guts from spilling out”
Why do I even like this song so much? It’s not something you can easily sing to, or jam to or anything. All it does is promise you an otherworldly trip and even though it will fall short of your expectations, it always keeps you hoping that the next time you listen to it, you’ll be transported further along. Maybe it’s just the cool visuals, I can be shallow like that too sometimes.
I get the novelty and the niche demand for discordant harmony but my brain literally will never get used to the fact that the beat skips every other note or so and therefore it defies every ounce, every fiber of musical expectation I have come to grown. It sounds… off. I know it’s on purpose but I like my rhythms to flow, my brain to understand that I’m not going to confuse and betray it by just erasing some notes here and there.
It’s li e sp a ing in s me we rd cod d la gua e.
(It’s like speaking in some weird coded language.)
To me, this song is the equivalent of just randomly skipping letters in a poem or an essay, and expecting your reader’s brain to just automatically fill in the gaps and go about reading it in as if nothing drastic has changed at all.
Give it a go if you want to listen to something new and different, but I think I’m going to give this song a hard NOPE.
7. He The Colossus
After “Tough Guy,” the next few songs dropped the deep insight into the patriarchal institution and instead focused on equally unfettered yet important issues like poverty, capitalism, desire and addiction, and whatever the heck 2BU was about. “He The Colossus” crashes back into breaking down super machismo and the violent expectations of wild sex. “He The Colossus” is futuristic, funky, but instead of an enraged rock fest like “I’m Not Sorry” from Imagine Dragons’ Smoke + Mirrors, we get something with line of melancholy running through like Hurts Like Heaven from Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto. It’s nice to listen to, but it isn’t attention catching and memorable, and is easily skippable.
Favorite Lyric: “The universe has us locked in a death spin” That’s some top notch nihilistic existentialism right there.
The track starts off with this fictional man apologizing and defending himself prematurely, setting himself up as a good guy, but immediately progresses to undermine women’s wishes to approach sex in their own way. He paints himself as the victim, gives the girl reasons to get with him, and basically ends up disrespecting a woman’s right to say no to sex whenever she wants. The Tough Guy Syndrome™ Wild Beasts wishes to paint in Boy King is hypersexualised, strong with fantasies of being like Colossus, violent, and ticks all the boxes of the checklist of traits that lets men be perceived as wild beasts.
Ponytail starts out strong musically, and like “Alpha Female” and “He The Colossus,” it’s the kind of song you’d play in muted tones while you’re working, chilling with your friends, in a store or something else that you wouldn’t pay attention to apart for the beat. Pay a little closer attention however, and you get a song about the hook-up culture that “us millennials” are engaging in. The nature of casual sex is brilliantly defined in this song, but only from the man’s perspective. What we end up getting, whether it’s intended or not, is that the guy is always the one who wants to “get in and get out” and “couldn’t care less if (he’s) never seen again”. This guy wants the girl to love him, trust him, hang on to his words, be clingy and needy, and he also wants to be the guy that leaves her in a nonchalant manner, feeling used and spoiled (“tell your friends but burn the sheets”).
While women do enjoy and engage in casual sex almost as much as men in many places, it’s popularly conceived as taboo and even slutty if she popularizes it. What our society ends up with is a whole bunch of girls who don’t have much to be ashamed about but constantly feel guilty, manipulated and bent into thinking that somehow they’re “less worth” than their more conservative friends. In countries like India and Indonesia, girls who have relationships or flings before marriage can be demonized to such an extent they are pushed to move cities to escape that prejudice. And that is if you’re lucky enough to escape the violence committed against young girls wanting to be open romantically and sexually by a “moral police” of sorts. In Indonesia, female officers wanting to join the military must submit to a “virginity test,” repeatedly discredited by the World Health Organization as an inaccurate basis for detecting an intact hymen. Women have always, always had their sexuality as a point against them, and have always been objectified as sex toys for the perusal of men. Ponytail basically portrays that culture, a culture where it’s an accomplishment for men to be nonchalant about sex, where it’s even encouraged for a man to leave a girl only after making sure she’s “clingy” about him. It’s an achievement for him, but a dishonor for her. Wild Beasts manages to say that you know you aren’t really as tough and cool as you think you are if you think getting the name of the person you’re going home with will somehow give you that gross disease. No, not syphilis. Sentiment.
Favorite Lyric: “Tell your friends but burn the sheets, couldn’t care less if I’m never seen again”
This fictional dude in the album sounds like a right douche, I’m telling you. Ladies (and gentlemen), please avoid Tough Guys like this at all costs…
9. Eat Your Heart Out Adonis
Track 9 from Boy King probably has the least amount of electronica and the most rock tones. “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” sounds very much like Muse did in Black Holes and Revelations, and I didn’t realize how much I actually missed a sound like this until this track started playing. Track 9 employs a similar, if not slightly more sophisticated, repetitive lyric as “Alpha Female,” but the dreampop breathy passionate crooning on this song combined with the guitar and drum procession in the background makes this a very catchy song.
Favorite Lyric: “Carnivores just want the dark meat”
In terms of what this song means, I’m not entirely sure? I think Eat Your Heart Out Adonis is a commentary on the kinds of guys who justify certain misogynistic desires as “part of evolution” or “men are built differently” or any other excuse that blames it on the animalistic drive of human biology. While our primitive libido and desires still abounds, humanity has evolved and come a long way intellectually to realize that our primitive desires are named that purely because they don’t belong in a civilized world anymore. The song is unmistakably about sex (eat your heart out? I mean…. Does it get any more obvious than that?), a theme that is painfully recurrent throughout the album. Highlight the word painfully there. I thought “Get My Bang” was too on the nose, but nope. This takes the cake, really. Hypersexualized vocals not only talk about a persistence to get what they want, but also on the encouragement of the average Adonis to take whatever he wants because he can, and that’s his primitive wiring.
Whatever the meaning, I especially love the way the song picks up halfway through, surprising you because you thought that that was it for the song.
I did NOT expect that. A ballad? Is this a ballad? “Dreamliner” would not be out of place by even a hair on Ed Sheeran’s +. “Dreamliner” belongs on a soundtrack, to play during exhausting and tearful romantic farewells, on a driving by aimlessly montage, as a tragic ending. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite songs on the album. Wild Beasts had an excellent opportunity to show off that yes, they can sing, and well too. In an album that starts out with Afro-style funk beats and includes rock, electronica, dream pop, and futuristic synth, “Dreamliner” is refreshingly out of place; which will make it memorable.
The soft xylophone notes recurring through the song recall The XX, and the backing chorus displays the right amount of sadness and heartbreak at the idea that whoever and whatever a dreamliner is, they can’t come with this guy. To me, a dreamliner is the new Boeing 787 aircraft, but I’m like pretty sure that Wild Beasts isn’t talking about an aviation feat. Regardless, the message is quite clear. I suppose this is a transition, an emergence of sorts as a self-aware person yearning for freedom and accepting the solitude of the Tough Guy. Stop isolating yourself to preserve your machismo, you’re not doing yourself or anybody around you any favors, begin again.
Favorite Lyric: “When I’m in dream, I’m always there alone”
The Tough Guy Syndrome™ Wild Beasts wishes to paint in Boy King is hypersexualised, strong with fantasies of being like Colossus, violent, and ticks all the boxes of the checklist of traits that lets men be perceived as wild beasts. I can’t help but get an unnerving sense of familiarity of the overarching message trying to be conveyed here. I get the wildness, the freedom and acceptance of sex, the actual tones and messages, I do. But more than once in Boy King, we see the fictional man filled with resentment and unveiled misogyny, a reminder of the “NOT ALL MEN” criers out there. I mean, if you’re gonna be the privileged guy who cries “Not All Men” at situations where women are expressing their outrage at the millennia of patriarchal oppression without any awareness of their privilege, you’re definitely gonna be the guy who doesn’t realize that women aren’t blaming ALL MEN, we’re asking to be heard. Wild Beasts’ derogatory tone towards the Tough Guy Syndrome™ is a reminder that men have certain expectations too, which are just as ridiculous as the engendered expectations of women.
Final Verdict: Boy King is an enjoyable album, and is certainly one of the kinds that get better with every listen. It’s quirky, funk pop tunes hide the dark message in the lyrics, and Wild Beasts definitely explore their “wild” and “beast” in this album. But with all the hype the album got and it’s prominence on music charts and stores worldwide, it’s mildly disappointing. Some tracks like “Tough Guy,” “Celestial Beasts” and “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” stand out, but the rest of the album doesn’t have the freshness that “Big Cat” promised as the opening number. The result is an album that will meld into the background of whatever you’re doing, an understated result for something that has the potential to be a frontrunner for a reimagined stance on electro-funk and indie rock music. With poorly executed vision and less than powerful tracks, Boy King is a bit of a mess, but still very much an enjoyable one.
Boy King is out in store now and can be streamed on Apple Music.