opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
It’s somewhat ironic that the more Wild Beasts pare down their sound, the smaller their circle of contemporaries seems to become. This thinning of the herd has been prompted by an eccentricity that compels you to judge Wild Beasts only against Wild Beasts. While Present Tense, their fourth LP, certainly has its forebears – Spirit of Eden, Pygmalion, Ocean Rain – there is no mistaking the quartet from Kendal at this point.
Chalk that up to four years of intense recording and touring, resulting in a dedicated fanbase, heaps of critical goodwill, and a quality of songwriting that has snowballed over three albums, 2008’s Limbo Panto, 2009’s Two Dancers and 2011’s Smother. Then they stopped touring and took a break. It could have proved disastrous; being Wild Beasts is pretty much all that guitarist Ben Little, drummer Chris Talbot and co-frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have been doing for their entire adult lives. In shakier hands, all of this extra gestation could have produced an overcooked, overthought effort. Instead, the Reichian Present Tense is uncluttered and exquisitely detailed.
With this increasing austerity, Wild Beasts are showing a strengthened conviction that every idea they offer is capable of standing on its own. This blossoming confidence is helped along by new producer Leo Abrahams and producer-cum-mixer Alex “Lexxx” Droomgoole, promoted to further progress the band’s shift away from guitars. True to form, Present Tense tiptoes towards all out electronica with exactitude, each rudiment held up to the light, scrutinized, and then lain into place.
The streamlining gives even more breathing room to the lyrics, whether sung in Fleming’s yawning baritone or Thorpe’s malleable falsetto. Earlier in their career, While Beasts were charmingly naïve, conjuring up perfect universes where entire days could be consumed plotting dramatic, heroic gestures to get the girl and then spending the subsequent weeks in bed. Not entirely unplugged from the histrionics, Thorpe brings a lived-in romanticism throughout, but particularly on the flawless closer “Palace”: “In detail you are/Even more beautiful than from afar/I could learn you like the blinded would do/Feeling our way through the dark.” Such a melodramatic quatrain could wither on the vine, but Thorpe throws himself into the song, as committed to his performance as he is to the figure he is describing.
But the majority of Present Tense lives in a reality that is messier, harsher, and teaches hard lessons. A world like this is bound to breed cynicism, described quite plainly on lead track and single “Wanderlust”: “Don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck.” The darker vibe is smeared throughout the majority of Present Tense’s 11 tracks. Fleming takes over on “Daughters”, a hyperbolic depiction of a child’s tantrum with an acidic industrial synth that dominates the otherwise hushed production. The voyeuristic “Nature Boy” borrows the dubby, droning keyboards of James Blake, but it’s a portentous track in its own right: “Your only joy, only bliss/Your lady wife around his hips”.
Despite the change in outlook this album represents for Wild Beasts, it represents a bigger step forward on the production front. The synths are clean and dialed up higher in the mix than anything played with two hands, and the rhythmic precision has become even finer, not unlike that of Liars’ WIXIW or the xx’s debut. On “Sweet Spot”, the dampened 4/4 beat serves, quite literally, as the songs heartbeat, anchoring Thorpe’s imbricated choral hook and guitars that ring out like knife sharpeners. “Pregnant Pause” and “Past Perfect” are striking in their starkness, while “New Life” crescendos beautifully but doesn’t possess the memorability of the peaks like “Daughters” or “Palace”.
But even with its less exceptional tracks, Present Tense marks a potent descent to Earth for Wild Beasts. As they shed their idealism they continue to adopt new shades of complexity, and are all the better for it. Present Tense may be a less accessible offering from Wild Beasts, but it's their most human – a mesmeric bundle of contradictions, indignities and pleasures. A sobering look at the world we all share, but willing to laugh, cry and gasp along with us. B+