Fauvism took life in the early 20th century as an unruly outgrowth of the Impressionism, expanding on its innovative use of color and movement while paying even less attention to representational accuracy or formal precision. The so-called “wild beasts” behind fauvism, among them Henri Matisse and André Derain, produced work depicting everyday scenes through a filter of gaudy unreality, favoring a chromatic arsenal of purples, pinks, and blues. In the rare case of a band selecting a suggestively high-culture moniker that does more than signal some intrinsic snobbery, Wild Beasts (originally known as Fauve) emerged from a fairly staid London indie-rock scene with a similar sort of outlandish ostentation, shaping a singular aesthetic that blended cerebral sincerity with a flamboyant sense of absurdity.
Across five full-length albums, the band has routinely toyed with the divide between these two poles, delivering ostensibly serious music that also indulged in ribald sexuality, bad puns, and general lowbrow goofiness. On Boy King, they finally push those florid qualities a bit too far, stumbling into a garish new style that’s heavy on sweat, sex, and cynicism, with little of the balancing sensuality that served as a necessary counterweight on their previous albums. Crossing from highbrow art rock with a lascivious pulse into brassy, bombastic dance-pop, Wild Beasts surrender to the animalistic tendencies that in the past have provided their potentially frosty music with a vivid, carnal edge. Yet, by blatantly exposing a core of raw sexuality, previously presented only indirectly in their music, the group ends up removing any possible release valve while stripping the songs of nuance.
Clammy, swollen junk like “Big Cat,” “Alpha Female,” and “Eat Your Heart Out, Adonis” abandons the formerly intricate vocal interplay between singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming in favor of a more straightforward approach, bolstered by oily grooves and superficial hooks. Such pure expressions of potency feel flabby instead of fleet-footed; attempting to draw out subtextual commentaries on privilege and desire through a lens of cartoon maleness, the songs here instead flounder in a morass of muddled prurience that’s feebly sordid and not particularly dynamic. A sleazy, aggressive track like “Get My Bang” may come off as tongue in cheek, but there’s ultimately not much distance between it and countless other artists’ drab displays of ragged, distressed (Blondes Have More Fun-era Rod Stewart comes to mind here), desperately trying to latch onto a new paradigm of gender-bending expansiveness, and instead coming across as merely grotesque.
Even with a sheen of knowing ironicism, the spectacle of cocky white males subverting gender binaries to bolster their inherent phallic force feels completely tired, not to mention irrelevant to an ever-more-diverse musical landscape. Skimming over notions of sex as a fulcrum for both essential power dynamics and gender relations, these thumping songs unconvincingly imagine subservience as a form of strength, and vice versa, a process that Thorpe has described as “letting my inner Byron fully out.” It’s accurate that such sneering, hollow lechery represents a logical end point for the pomp and pretension of Byronic masculinity, but it’s also true that this perspective has little utility in today’s pop landscape, especially presented in such lifeless form by a band previously capable of startling, extravagant complexity.