When Wild Beasts released Limbo, Panto in 2008, the album introduced the English quartet's funk-wrought mechanics and Hayden Thorpe's bold, falsetto-leaning voice. Intricate lyrics and erratic influences shone through as well, as if there were more ideas brimming among the four members than they could channel at the time. It was no surprise, then, to find last year's follow-up, Two Dancers, streamlined and less showy. Wild Beasts had already moved on, it turns out, by the time Limbo, Panto emerged.
"We'd learned a lot, and we wanted to make something contemporary with what we were doing," says Tom Flemming, who shares guitar, bass, and keys duties with Thorpe and sings lead on four of Two Dancers' songs. "In that respect, it was a deliberate departure. At the same time, it was a logical step and a more accurate representation of where we were." Rather than slap their influences on top of their sound, he adds, the members learned to incorporate them in less obvious ways.
Completed by lead guitarist Ben Little and drummer Chris Talbot, Wild Beasts coproduced Two Dancers with Richard Fromby, a producer and solo artist based in the band's adopted home base of Leeds. (The group formed in the Lake District town of Kendal.) Released like Limbo, Panto on the far-reaching yet artist-friendly label Domino, the album is flecked with numerous subtleties while driven by a constant, eerie tension among voice, instruments, and lyrics. That's partly the result of absorbing so much dance music, Flemming says, especially its textures and lack of a lead instrument. "It was always simmering; it never boiled over," he explains of minimal techno specifically. "That was the feeling we were going for, it being all tension and atmosphere without necessarily breaking into climax. The first record was more conventional pop structures. [This one] has more repetition, and a lot of it is about rhythm."
That's apparent from the chiming opener, "The Fun Powder Plot," which commands the subliminal sway of the dancefloor. The song's passing mention of a booty call also introduces the album's central theme: desperate nights packed with hungry, irresponsible sex. The single "All the King's Men" casts a sidelong look at youthful courting and procreation, "Underbelly" cites a "lothario" leering at a "slut," and the tellingly titled "We Still Got the Taste of Dancin' on Our Tongues" portrays booze-fueled decadence.
"A lot of it is about sexuality and desire, and how everything you do has an effect, whether you mean it to or not," Flemming reflects. "Even the smallest things. You wake up in the morning and wonder what it was all about." He says desire is inextricably bound up with longing and sadness, making it fertile soil for songwriting: "It's an obsession for a hell of a lot of people."
No longer relying so much on Thorpe's divisive singing, which has been toned down as well as offset by Flemming's deeper vocals, Wild Beasts have certainly come into their own. Unlike the aggressively arty Limbo, Panto, it's possible to enjoy Two Dancers as either an intellectual delight or simply a propulsive pop record. The lyrics prove sharp and considered but slink off into the background easily enough, and the vocals are now a more natural feature of the band as a whole. And finally, the album's 10 songs are cut from the same cloth.
"All the songs are kind of brothers and sisters," Flemming says. "There are only a few melodic, structural, and lyrical ideas. They recur and get refracted in different ways." Looking to the previous album for contrast, he admits, "We grew up a bit."