Last September, long time Music Factory-favourites Wild Beasts decided that the time had come, after five albums of precious indie art-rock, to draw their career to an elegant close. Piers Barber is in the crowd at their emotional final show, delivered to an adoring crowd at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.
Farewell, then, to Wild Beasts, that slightly strange gang of hopelessly romantic Cumbrians who emerged in 2008 armed with sweet falsetto and twinkling melodies to rescue us from lad rock and the Libertines. While the group ultimately never truly set the world alight, the Beasts undoubtedly succeeded in deeply affecting their chosen few with their one-of-a-kind brand of artful indie. Tonight, ten years after their first album release, a selection of thousands gather at Hammersmith Apollo to pay their respects.
This is the first time I have (knowingly) watched a band perform their last ever show, and the realisation that one-by-one we are watching the final performance of so many beautifully crafted songs is unexpectedly hard hitting. The whole thing is decidedly bittersweet. Sure, bowing out prematurely has ensured that this persistently imaginative band depart with considerable dignity and a guaranteed legacy. But it’s undeniably a decision that came from a disheartening place – indeed, it must be deeply depressing to realise that a group to which you have dedicated your entire adult life can no longer attract crowds of any more than 250 to American shows that a few years earlier had been sell outs – an experience that Beasts guitarist Ben Little discusses in the group’s powerful interview on their split with Laura Snapes in Q. “You can deal with being hated, but you can’t deal with not being noticed,” bassist, guitarist and vocalist Tom Fleming admitted.
Last year’s Boy King, of course, was the band’s last gasp attempt to break through the glass ceiling into renowned-pop-powerhouse territory. The album sold well, even reaching the UK top 10 upon release, but its crass reach for brash synth quick-fixes and laddy lyrics left many original fans feeling cold. It’s true that much of the album was delivered at least partly tongue in cheek, and still retains a fair smattering of classic Beasts lyrics exploring fragile masculinity (lead single Big Cat: “It takes all of me, baby, / Being the big cat”).
But tonight even the nudge-nudge-wink-wink melodrama of the confetti canons which greet the beginning of ‘Get My Bang’ aren’t enough to distract from the fact that the album’s macho synths, blokey guitar solos and “alpha woman” rhetoric feel uncomfortably out of place among the rest of the band’s elegant canon. The album’s story provides a potent case against the truism that a band must undergo a continual process of reinvention in order to stay relevant. Despite eventually caving in to making Boy King – becoming, in singer Hayden Thorpe’s words “the band we’ve always objected to being” – it wasn’t created wholeheartedly, and simply wasn’t them – indeed, it seems to have hastened their demise.
Happily, though, tonight’s special setlist is split almost equally between the band’s five albums, including Present Tense, which we chose as the Music Factory’s favourite album of 2011. There are lovely moments throughout, as less prominent members Little and drummer Chris Talbot demonstrate their dexterity through delicate guitar lines and complex drum patterns. Personal favourites are hearing for one last time the wonderful tongue-twister lyrics of ‘Reach A Bit Further’, and – oddly – ‘Deeper’, a reflective Smother ballad which provides space for a poignant moment of reflection midway through the set. There are also outings for lesser-spotted songs from debut Limbo, Panto, including a tasteful rendition of ‘His Grinning Skull’.
The band pack in 24 songs split over two sections, lasting over the course of several hours. A final encore begins with ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ and is followed by a triumphant ‘All The King’s Men’, a song which Fleming has clearly adored performing more than anything over the past ten years. It’s final outing, delivered with deep emotion, is made all the more poignant considering his reported stance as the only member of the band opposed to the split.
Then, inevitably, comes ‘End Come Too Soon’, previously known as the exquisite closer to Smother but now a song which seems to have been brought into existence purely for this precise moment and situation (“the night’s been blessed, / With a neverendingness, but none the less, / End come to soon”). One by one the band exchange hugs during the song’s final extended breakdown, before an all-female choir join them for a final lump-in-the-throat chorus. With the band departed, the choir remains to deliver a chilling a capella version of the quaint Limbo, Panto track ‘Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye’. With no men and no dramatic guitar crescendo in sight, it serves as a wonderfully on-brand way to bow out.
Perhaps a little oddly, Wild Beasts’ show in a small tent in Coachella in 2011 remains one of my favourite musical memories. Coming soon after the release of Smother but before Present Tense, I watched their short set in the sweltering heat along with one of my closest friends – one who I had initially bonded with partly through the music of this group – while others sought respite from the sun by snoozing at the back. Their performance, delivered to a crowd of probably no more than 30 diehards and bemused, sunstroked Californians, was pitch perfect, full of fun, and laden with emotion. Wild Beasts would never make it to the coveted headline slots of those major festivals, but for me they often provided the moments that made those occasions so precious – and I think they’d be happy to know they left such an important legacy.