It’s all swagger and posturing, bawdy and lewd.
Wild Beasts is well-known as the band that playfully dissects machismo through their own particular take on synth art-rock. Their fifth album Boy King, however, takes that to a whole new level. The synths are glitzed out beyond belief. The rock aspects owe major influences to Jagger-swagger cock rock. And the lyrics are downright sexual. There’s a reason why singer Hayden Thorpe described the album as “all fuck songs.” It’s all swagger and posturing, bawdy and lewd. The dark glitz of this aggressive sound takes Wild Beasts into an interesting direction, but the substance itself is little more than cheekily sordid, not parsing masculinity as much as reinforcing its sexual baseness.
Musically, Boy King is heavily indebted to strutting ’80s synth-rock. The album design itself—from the band logo to the neon Bicentennial Man on the cover—is a throwback to the futurism of the era. But Wild Beasts’ “future” here lives up to the band’s name, trotting out animal desire left and right. The blippy “Big Cat” is a somewhat literal example. The slow beat and funky bass from Tom Fleming texture Thorpe’s falsetto anthem to sexual prowess at the “top of the food chain” that inevitably devolves into sensual repetitions of “You can look but don’t touch/ Better show me what you’ve got.” “Get My Bang” is even more explicit with its subject. It’s a song all about indulgence (even including the line “If they’re hungry then just let them eat cake”) and bravado because there’s never really a question about him getting his bang. In both cases, Thorpe is gloriously vamping it up—as any self-respecting self-confident indie rock frontman should—but the fanfare is more or less empty, its breathy eroticism paraded around as something more than testosterone-fueled lasciviousness.
But “Tough Guy” is the pinnacle of Boy King, despite being the second track. A scuzzy synth line and squelching guitars pair well with an ostensible anthem to the emblem of masculinity. “Now I’m all fucked up/ And I can’t stand up/ So I better suck it up/ Like a tough guy would” leads into a blistering sing-song chorus about being a “virgin killer.” Wild Beasts may have thought following this gem with “Alpha Female” would show some gender equality, but that track is an empty gesture, its stuttering synths and bouncy beat a good reflection of the thinly veiled lust of the sweaty clubs that will likely dig it.
“Celestial Creatures” and “2BU” offer a mid-album shift, exhibiting a Wild Beasts that reins in the clubbier aspects of this album in favor of a kind of restrained synth-R&B. The latter turns into an excellent showcase of Fleming’s baritone and some truly catchy keyboard melodies, blippy synths and electric guitar flourishes. “Celestial Creatures” still features a rich layering of astral synths, heavy beats and industrial noise, but the sincerity of Thorpe’s unassuming vocal gives a glimpse of a Wild Beasts not bogged down by overt raunchiness. Imagine a U2 ballad set to swirling synths. “Ponytail” is an odd mix of Boy King‘s two sides of Wild Beasts, opting for airy guitar riffs and a relatively straightforward vocal from Fleming that wouldn’t be out of place on an alternative ’80s indie rock love song. But then there are those chipmunk “na na na”s. What possessed them to self-destruct one of the more sonically intriguing songs on the album with that god-awful noise is beyond comprehension.
But just when Boy King looks to show some depth and variety, “He the Colossus” takes us right back to the carnal: “You can stuff your chastity/ Your ‘wait and see,’ your ‘not ready’.” The track does have the distinction of featuring a satisfyingly crunchy guitar line, but, like “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis,” it’s too on-the-nose with its message. There’s no subtlety to Boy King. As a result, its rampant lust is just garish.