At the end of every year I buy what I refer to as my “Christmas album” . It is the last new CD I buy myself each year, and there are two caveats: it must be by an artist I have never bought music by before, and I must be able to buy it in person in a record shop. In 2009 my Christmas album was Two Dancers by Wild Beasts.
I listened to Two Dancers about five times, quite enjoyed it, and filed it away, mentally marking it as “just quite a good rock record”. I think my antipathy was in part driven, and this may make me sound insane, by the fact that the enormous, praise-laden sticker slapped on the front of the jewel case wouldn’t come off. For some reason I couldn’t be bothered to switch the case, which I’d normally do. Stickers on CD cases annoy me intensely, and I think I allowed my distaste of the sticker’s grubby residue to deter me from pulling the CD out of the shelves and playing it.
Just over a year later news started leaking out about Wild Beasts’ third album, Smother, and there was whispered talk of it being a subtle, stylish creation with a whiff of Talk Talk about it. This piqued my interest, and I revisited Two Dancers (and switched the case!), and felt it attach itself to whatever part of my brain it is that drives the desire to listen to music over and over again. I had snatches of melodies and words from Two Dancers spin around my head, joining bits of other songs by other artists, songs I’ve known for decades, in symbiotic cerebral mash-ups. It’s become one of the albums I’ve listened to most over the last couple of years.
Limbo Panto, Wild Beasts’ debut album, was an adolescent cry for attention, feverishly excited and easily distracted. Two Dancers maintains some of that record’s noisy surges and tempestuous rhythms, but adds a degree of sophistication and maturity which, to my ears, elevates it far above their debut. Songs unfurl and evolve in ways which aren’t obvious and which seem capricious at first, but which start to seem refined with familiarity. Rhythms lock together and interplay in understated, compelling ways for extended periods. There’s still plenty of whooping, sensual cacophony from the band’s preternaturally gifted and extravagant singers though, and explosions of almost-brutal guitar noise, and the tension between rhythmic and structural control and the emotional releases that puncture proceedings is exhilarating, but it seems much more controlled now than it did before.
And oh, those singers: one a fragile, glass-made thing not a million miles from Anthony Hegarty, the other a chestier, sourdough concoction perhaps similar to Peter Gabriel. Both singers are powerful and expressive, capable of howling yelps of pleasure or pain, of dazzling skips across and beyond your expectations. They can be an acquired taste, but when the two of them properly duet with each other, I swoon. And the lyrics they sing, well…
The lyrics across Two Dancers could easily be taken as saucy, salacious even, if they weren’t also laced with disturbing, menacing imagery. Emma has said on many occasions that they make her uncomfortable, and I feel the same way, albeit mixed with fascination. You could see the album as presenting a narrative arc, beginning with songs which unflinchingly reveal the baser instincts of groups of young men out on the town, offering only description and leaving critique to the listener, ruthlessly depicting drunken one-night-stands (“trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / down dimly-lit streets”) and murderous sexual possessiveness; “Hooting And Howling” openly threatens to murder “any rival who goes for our girls”, the protagonist refusing to excuse himself, acknowledging the brutality in his nature.
Things climax unpleasantly with “Two Dancers (I)”, which seems to describe a sexual assault from the point of view of the victim; sung in a throaty, masculine boom, it acquires a disquieting air of disconnected sympathy. Is this the inevitable end-point of the untethered (unfettered) and unchecked and irresponsible masculinity already depicted? “They dragged me by the ankles through the street / they passed me round them like a piece of meat / his hairy hands / his falling fists / his dancing cock / down by his knees / I feel as if I’ve been where you have been”: the picture painted is stark and shocking and unflinching, but the context is vague, the narrative voice not explicit, the melody forces you to sing along and thus insert yourself into the trauma, the singer seemingly separating himself from the narrator, forcing you to identify with the victim. The final two songs seem to portray first guilt on behalf of the protagonist and then condemnation on behalf of his culture.
Two Dancers is a hell of a journey to undertake as a listener, as emotionally draining as it is exhilarating. And it takes less than 38 minutes to do it. It’s an incredible record, one of my very favourites. Hell, I even own a Wild Beasts t-shirt, like a fanboy.