Wild Beasts – Present Tense

With each listen the new Wild Beasts album feels more and more like a masterpiece to DOUG WALLEN.

Having followed Wild Beasts over the course of four albums, it’s been uncommonly rewarding to watch the English quartet grow from an eccentric and promising young band to one of the most unique and assured on the planet. It’s all the more admirable that they’ve done it by stripping back more and more with each album, from the wordy indulgence of Limbo, Panto (2008) to the sultry yet sinister maturity of Two Dancers (2009) and Smother (2011) to the disciplined electronic contours and eerie wisdom of Present Tense.

It’s gotten to the point, in fact, where the music can almost feel secondary to the vocals, lyrics and sheer mood. Often the backdrop is so stark and spectral that a simple well-placed synth or guitar line has the ability to devastate. These new songs pulse with only the humblest of embellishment, co-producers Lexxx (M.I.A., Foals) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno) instilling them with a warm, milky openness.

“Wild Beasts sound not just stronger but deeper and more meaningful with every listen”

Amid such control, though, the savagery implied by Wild Beasts’ name is there in the lyrics, if only in relatively subtle glimpses. Set to shifty rhythms, ‘Daughters’ paints an ominous scene where exits are being taped up and valuables nailed to the floor, followed by flickers of menace in lines about sharpening blades, chicken bones, destroyers of worlds and “only ruins” remaining. The album’s opening line, meanwhile, is “We’re decadent beyond our means,” which transports us into ‘Wanderlust’ as much as the song’s night-stalking airs and wan keyboard lines. Alternating song by song as the foil to Tom Fleming’s shadowy baritone, Hayden Thorpe’s wavering tenor is a thing of such delicateness that it ambushes us on a lyric like “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.”

Even by Wild Beasts standards, Present Tense’s second half is more low-key and spectral than the first. But that balance works well, and the opening run of songs is killer, from Fleming’s Morrissey-esque vocal turn on ‘Nature Boy’ and the overlapping harmonies of ‘Mecca’ to the pillow-soft and wide-open ‘Sweet Spot’ (think Avalon -era Roxy Music) and the tenderly minimal ‘Pregnant Pause’. They’re silky and slinking, whether relishing Fleming’s disconcerting brooding or Thorpe’s fluttering gossamer beauty. On ‘Pregnant Pause’ especially, Thorpe is unafraid to come off fey with his vocal approach, and he conquers us with such a perfect drop of opening imagery as “The day drags like a dead thing.” The lyrics throughout give the songs an age-old, mythological quality, with references to ether and “the ancients” rather than to any current markers of time. There’s a line on ‘Past Perfect’ that nails this: “Our hurt is older than our hands/It passed from monkey into man.” Again, the wisdom here feels weighty with value. “I could learn you/Like the blinded would do,” goes a line on the closing ‘Palace’, where both singers lend the track a devotional sweetness. Even on the album’s fainter second half, with the low-lit dub of ‘A Dog’s Life’ and the synth-perfect ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’, words and sound merge for tingling effect.

The highest compliment you can pay Wild Beasts is that their records sound not just stronger, but deeper and more meaningful, with every listen. And that’s perhaps truer of Present Tense than it has been of any of their records.