Monday, January 6, 2014

Context and Wild Beasts

Let me take you back to the 14th of August, 2012. It was my 21st birthday, and as usual, most of my presents came in CD form. One of the CDs I received was Smother by Wild Beasts, an album I'd been meaning to check out for some time; you may remember that it was pretty much everybody's album of 2011*. Finally, I had my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

My first impression was underwhelming, as so many first impressions are. Smother was a lot softer than I expected from a band called 'Wild Beasts', and with the notable exception of closing track End Come Too Soon (which frankly arrives too late to really rescue the album), it never really delivers on its tensions. By and large, these songs failed to scale the heights I wanted them to.

Time passed, and after hearing Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants on 6 Music, I decided to give Wild Beasts another go. I picked up Limbo, Panto from Fopp in Bristol and, my interest reinvigorated by that great single, I listened closely.

And, strange though it may sound, Limbo, Panto was the album that taught me to love Smother. Limbo, Panto was the very first Wild Beasts album, and dipping into the band's history gave me more information about their more recent work; more specifically, Smother began to look like a growling, chained-up wolf, in stark contrast to Limbo, Panto's over-enthusiastic and slightly irritating terrier.

Limbo, Panto, you see, is an album of ear-splitting histrionics. Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants is actually one of the most straightforward tracks on the disc, and while the operatic, all-over-the-place approach can be thrilling in short bursts (take the mad, mad Woebegone Wanderers, for example), it becomes quite exhausting when extended across the length of an LP.

Enter Smother, whose merits are suddenly much clearer. From the crisp, minimalist introduction of Lion's Share (see video above) to the swirling chorus of Reach a Bit Further, this record has many pleasures to offer, and they're all the more appealing for their simplicity. Smother is something of a grower anyway, but I doubt that I'd like it as much as I do now if it weren't for the contrast provided by Limbo, Panto.

All of which is merely an example of how much better an album can be given the right context. Smother started to sound better once I knew how bonkers Wild Beasts had previously been; similarly, I became a lot more interested in Tallahassee after I'd read up on the Alpha Couple.

Of course, it can work the other way - Around the Sun might seem like a pretty good record if you're not familiar with the rest of R.E.M.'s oeuvre. For better or worse, a bit of context can really change the way you look at an album. If you can think of any other examples, stick 'em in the comments.

*In case you're curious, my own album of 2011 was Last of the Country Gentlemen by Josh T. Pearson.

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