“Where the body goes the mind will follow soon after”, Hayden Thorpe sings on ‘Mecca’, a lyric that could apply to the progression of the thematic concerns of his band. Wild Beasts have somewhat shifted focus away from their carnal obsessions for a more direct, angry and intellectual record in their fourth album. Not to say that any of their previous works lacked intelligence, nor that the latest isn’t libidinous and sensual, but where their past records presented an intellectualisation of the salacious, here the link to the body and the heart seems unmediated.
It’s been six years since the Kendall four-piece’s first album – an explicit and irrevocable statement record that introduced a sound that was refined and somewhat caged on the following two albums, culminating with 2011’s dark masterpiece, Smother. Those who miss the brashness of Limbo, Panto have little to complain about – that first album exists and will continue to do so, but Wild Beasts are treading new grounds of pop music, and Present Tense is their most original record since their debut.
The release has been accompanied by a social media Twitstorm, but despite engaging with all the networks at a modern band’s disposal, it would be too strong to claim that the boys have embraced these aspects of modernity. They remain outsiders, voyeurs even, just of the wrong generation for the internet to be part of their physiology. The title and album cover reflect a concern for the fragmentation of the now and for the place of the individual, and the man, in such a world. This relation seems mirrored in the fact that record is the band’s first since relocating to London, and Present Tense is subversive in its recognition of class and its threatening discontent with inequality. But the fact that this album feels, at times, fiercely political is perhaps more a sad reflection on the lack of social awareness in much of the music industry as opposed to any explicit ideology expressed in Present Tense.
Thorpe has spoken of using his distinctive vocal delivery “almost as a tool of protest” in the early days, but now it seems like the Beasts have more faith in the musical and lyrical content of their songs. Not to say that the vocals have been completely toned down – Thorpe and Fleming’s ‘comedy high voice/comedy low voice’ routine remains mostly intact, but there are times when the two meet and overlap in the midrange, as on ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’, and the effect is mesmerising. Tom Fleming’s vocals in particular are the best they’ve ever been, reaching notes with a perfect combination of clarity and catch. From the second song, ‘Nature Boy’, Fleming’s honey-soaked growl is introduced as an unsettling parody of innate masculinity, “I am the thing fenced in/I’m ten men”, and its return in later songs is inextricable from this menacing lasciviousness.
Whilst Wild Beasts have always understood the power of the comic, Present Tense is another album that is far more dramatic than it is humorous. Unlike similarly ambitious works of reappropriation, such as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor or Gayngs’ Relayted, Present Tense does not hide behind irony. Indeed it is very much a forward-looking record – its synths channelling Oneohtrix Point Never more than 80s synth pop directly, a bold direction at a time when revivalism seems a safe bet for commercial and critical success. Reflections of other contemporary producers prevail, such as the Nicolas Jaar inspired drum rattles on ‘A Dog’s Life’, and the building textures on tracks such as ‘New Life’ echo the subtly unsettling atmospheres created by label-mates Junior Boys. The electronic production is perhaps a reflection of the physical constraints imposed by working in a city as compressed as London, but typically the band manages to turn every element of their circumstances into a refined feature of their sound. By stripping away what is nonessential, the band have produced a record that is clear-eyed and sober, with every component captured in glittering widescreen detail. Much of the strength of the music rests on Chris Talbot’s sublime and intelligent drumming. The album uses live performance alongside a courageous confidence in drum machines, with both doing a large amount of work to subtly unite the songs’ precise elements and keep the momentum of the first song tumbling through to the last, via the circular grooves on ‘Mecca’ and the teasing game of tension and release on ‘Pregnant Pause’.
The label “art-pop” seems appropriate, but is perhaps misleading: very few of these songs are suitable for mainstream radio, both rooted in the context of the album as a whole and sounding unlike anything likely to be heard by accident. But Present Tense is art, and it sees Wild Beasts’ bark and bite at their sharpest and loudest, resulting in a strikingly clear but unmappably deep record that feels beautiful, incendiary and necessary.