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(Siraj Sindhu)– The Mutual Benefit and Wild Beasts’ show in Cambridge in mid-July featured a seemingly unlikely combination that worked surprisingly well together. These two bands have very different musical styles—one folksy and quiet, the other bombastic and flamboyant—that are nonetheless complementary, and that appeal to similar crowds. Upon reflection, I’ve come to think of the concert as an exercise in the performance of competing kinds of masculinity.
The concert began with Mutual Benefit, a four-piece in its current incarnation, quietly taking the stage. Mutual Benefit originally existed as the solo musical project of Jordan Lee, who added more members as his sound grew from bedroom-produced tape loops into a fully-fledged project. That particular evening, the band included a drummer with an expanded drum set, a guitarist, a keyboardist, and Lee, who also plays keyboards in addition to providing the lead vocals.
The music could best be summed up with one word: pretty. Mutual Benefit trades in an inoffensive, barely-there sort of folk filled with simple melodies and pleasant synths. Soft, tinkling percussion, often utilized to push the boundaries of melody, is integral to the band’s sound; the drummer’s set included a pair of djembes and chimes, which served to fill auditory space as well as produce the tumbling percussive effects that the band is known for. Meanwhile, Lee’s soft and breathy vocals lay weakly under the instrumentation. His voice could easily be thought of as the weakest aspect of the band’s music, but I consider it a vehicle for some of the most compelling ideas the music has to offer.
Lee is unapologetically and unabashedly un-masculine. In a culture that prizes hyper-aggressive, powerful, and constantly in control masculinity, Lee proudly displays a demeanor that is most accurately described as wimpy. This lack of masculinity takes many forms: not only is it embodied in the physical appearance of the band, but it manifests in Lee’s vocals, lyrical themes, and instrumentation. Nearly every aspect of the band’s music expresses a rejection of traditional ideas of masculinity that put emphasis on strength, self-determination and dominance.
In terms of stage presence, Mutual Benefit refused to conform to the typical setup that places the lead in front, with two instrumentalists at his sides and a drummer behind; rather, the members positioned themselves horizontally, four across, equal. Lee, despite being the frontman, often sank into the background (partly due to his exceptionally short stature), allowing the drummer to take the spotlight with a chime fill or the guitarist to add a bit of attention-grabbing fuzzy distortion.
Lee’s voice quavered uncontrollably at times: in between songs, he at one point asked us to “indulge him” (with his voice cracking over his words) by doing the wave. Then there’s the pitch of his voice. Situated extremely high on the register, Lee’s vocals could easily be mistaken for female.
The lyrics and instrumentation call up a rejection of traditional masculinity as well. Lee grounds his worldview in the “you”, rarely giving agency to himself in his songwriting. Take the first lines of “Golden Wake”, or the closing lines of “Strong River”: “In the water I could see/ a piece of what you broke in me”, and “You told me you had stashed away/ a note that would explain the way”. Whether Lee is being broken or being shown what to do, he’s being acted upon in very un-masculine ways. Later in “Golden Wake”, he struggles to empower himself: “you weren’t made to be this way/ you weren’t made to be afraid”, he breathes, sounding incredibly afraid nonetheless. Lee sings of grace, summing up his mantra with a couplet from the end of “Advanced Falconry”: “Talk softly, walk slowly”, Lee intones, as a descriptive verse morphs into a command instead. Take the instrumentation, too: this is very gentle, lilting music with syrupy sweet instrumentation. There are no bold drum fills here: each tap of the percussion feels like it was deliberately held back and slightly less aggressive than it could have been.
After a short intermission, Wild Beasts prowled onto stage, strikingly different from their openers in demeanor. Whereas Mutual Benefit was timid and folksy, Wild Beasts were self-assured, confident, and polished. The interesting contrast is largely due to the dual lead singers that define the thematic elements of Wild Beasts’ music. These singers are Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, who have been members of the British four-piece band since before the release of their first album. The general thrust of Wild Beasts’ music is the comparison of Thorpe’s brand of masculinity with Fleming’s, through, as Thorpe stated early on in the set, “songs about three things: love, sex, and death.”
Thorpe embodies the classy, refined, rarefied gentleman, whereas Fleming adopts the persona of primal, animalistic man. Thorpe’s vocals are smooth and honeylike with impressive range and clear enunciation, while Fleming’s vocals are unwaveringly deep and booming. The contrast latent in the band’s music is apparent even in the appearance of the lead men: Thorpe’s hair was gently combed back with a neat side part, and the night I saw him he was wearing a crisp white oxford shirt, black cardigan, turned-up chinos and black oxford shoes; Fleming, on the other hand, never took off his thick red beanie, and wore a white tank top over heavy twill pants tucked into combat boots.
The band’s stage presence also reflects a double contrast: while Mutual Benefit lined up four across, Wild Beasts placed Thorpe in front and drummer Chris Talbot in the back—the typical, hierarchical band set-up that adopts the hyper-masculine quest for dominance and prominence. Thorpe, while delivering his lines, often gestured grandly and swayed, spreading his arms wide. Fleming, somewhat similarly, punctuated his lines by dizzyingly wobbling and stumbling around the stage. While both of these methods of delivery added to the emotional weight of the lyrics, Fleming’s removed any sense of control: Fleming’s primal man was subject to his immense emotions, while Thorpe’s restrained gentleman stood calmly, channeling his emotions to the audience.
The band’s lyrics and instrumentation present more clashing ideals of men and their accouterments. Fleming, in “Nature Boy”, paints a picture of a threatening man of the outdoors, in touch with his body in a base way: “fists and fingers bloody/ so he works all day and he works all night/ keeps you all locked up inside/ I’m the thing you fenced in/ I’m ten men”. Meanwhile, Thorpe prefaces “Palace” by describing it as a “proper Englishman’s love song”, then goes on to close the song with the lines, “We may be savage and raw/ but at the core, we’ve higher needs.” The meaning is immediate and stark: the performance of brutish masculinity is a mask. It is a cover used to shield oneself from the shame of wanting all the things that are un-masculine: all the things that Jordan Lee would proudly profess to love.
Wild Beasts thus produce two caricatures of modern man: a soft gentleman of immense sophistication and intricate emotional loftiness; and a tough manly man of brute power, blunt emotional intensity and cunning. There’s a great deal of interplay between the two caricatures, but more interestingly, the double concert highlighted an interaction between Jordan Lee’s effeminate brand of masculinity and Thorpe and Fleming’s alternating versions of hyper-masculinity. Perhaps the coexistence (and indeed, co-performance) of these competing forms of masculinity points to the potential for non-traditional alternative performances of masculinity.
All in all, Mutual Benefit and Wild Beasts put on a hell of a show. Not only was the music incredible, but it was full of ideas to examine more closely, and every little detail was thoughtfully arranged. Both of these bands have put out some fantastic work so far, and I look forward to hearing whatever comes next.