By Conrad Amenta | 5 November 2008
It all hangs on that one precipitous note, trembling in the first bar of the first song and declaring, for better or worse, that this is Wild Beasts’ identity. Like Antony & the Johnsons if Antony were to put stock in camp at the expense of all else; like Dirty Projectors stripped of their bloodless technicality and painted with primary colors; like whoever the hell it was who sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The toms are playful. The guitar is a slab of beef. It could all be utterly forgettable were it not for Hayden Thorpe’s vocal acrobatics.
In that moment during “Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy” Wild Beasts are about as deserving as their name as any. They sound uninhibited and entirely focused on accessing their undiluted core of ham, and the band’s serviceable Afro-bop backup renders it all plainly inoffensive. But as the album wears on, it becomes obvious that something so performative deserves full strides towards center stage. Antony Hegarty remains a useful contrast not just for the similarities between his and Thorpe’s vocals, but as an example of where intentional and knowing stylization might take Thorpe. Antony’s performances contain degrees of subtlety and subtext where Wild Beasts are either incapable or uninterested. It seems there’s a tacit agreement to put Thorpe on display, to treat him simultaneously as not-so-secret weapon and exotic outsider. And there are moments on Limbo, Panto where that’s all that’s separating Wild Beasts from Vampire Weekend.
Not everyone can make I Am a Bird Now (2005), not even Hegarty, and even less are interested. Also, that album and this one obviously share few goals. Which would all be fine, were Limbo, Panto to possess natural strengths of its own, or to at least stop short of mitigating them. Take “Devil’s Crayon,” a song with which polyrhythmic verses and textured guitar provide canvas for the bright splash of Thorpe’s voice. In its opening minute, the song nearly equals the announcement by “Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy” and suggests that Wild Beasts’ economical pop songwriting might be a complimentary gesture designed to make the most use of the group’s obvious draw. But in the minute that follows, the song devolves into a distorted, two-chord rock chorus, over which Thorpe growls with unintentional comedy, an excess unfortunate precisely because it’s sandwiched so awkwardly with the song’s otherwise fruitful partnering. I’m a trenchant Remain in Light (1980) acolyte; “Devil’s Crayon” sparked and then promptly dashed my hopes for a similarly expansive investigation of rhythm, echo, and propulsion.
Until the group learns to keeps pace or more effectively makes space for Thorpe, their singer will remain the first, best, and only reason to listen to Wild Beasts. Where that might provide the group with the necessary hook to draw listeners in a market inundated with diverse voices and histrionic gestures, it also limits group longevity to exactly the amount of time it takes to get tired of listening to Thorpe stretch his vocals to their limit.