Wild Beasts

Present Tense

Wild Beasts’ fourth album begins exactly as you might expect a Wild Beasts album to. There’s a waterfall of processed voices, like a crowded bar with the background chatter sung, a determined, quick-eyed rhythm, out there and looking for prey. The twin voices of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming singing of ‘Wanderlust’… "there’s a feeling that I’ve come to trust… don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck". But is it so simple?

Present Tense is a markedly different creature from their first three albums, and especially a significant move forward from 2011’s Top 20 LP Smother. Since then, Thorpe, Fleming, Ben Little and Chris Talbot have headed down the M1 to become London residents, and here work for the first time without long-term producer and collaborator Richard Formby. Instead, on a record largely free of guitars, musical polymath Leo Abrahams and Alex ‘Lexxx’ Dromgoogle (whose name sounds like a Wild Beasts lyric from 2008) take the helm. When I interviewed Wild Beasts about the recording of Present Tense for Q magazine, Tom Fleming insisted that "we have no compulsion whatsoever to make adult pop", but that’s rather what this is. Thoughtful, self-aware, graceful, going somewhere, no longer entirely obsessed on the carnality of youth and the darker ends of male desire.

As such, anyone hoping for a repeat of Smother‘s neo-disco might be disappointed. This is a far more reflective affair, with the lyrical gymnasium packed away. A good thing – if they’d continued writing lines that pranced so high their balls had a habit of dropping out of their shorts, then Wild Beasts would have become boring very quickly; all panto, no limbo.

Then again, where do Wild Beasts fit in now? This is not rock music. This is not indie music. I’d like it to be pop music, and it should be, but one blast of commercial radio in a local shop will tell you that’s just not permitted. It’s Wild Beasts to the core, no matter what they’re consciously and openly borrowing from the past, or from the endless journeys through the song tunnel of YouTube that they say took place during the recording. The audible trip back to the 80s and 90s isn’t revivalist or nostalgic, though. Instead, the camp energies of synth pop have been harnessed to the core Wild Beasts strengths of a solid rhythm section and a gimlet eye. They’ve confessed that the voluptuous synths of ‘Mecca’ are a cheeky thieving from Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love?’, and they’re occasionally channelling the same smooth energies as Gayngs did on the flawed Relayted a few years back – flawed because as soon as I saw that band live it was abundantly clear they were the ironic bro-off that I’d defended them against. No such flimsy frippery here, for Wild Beasts are deadly serious, something that comes across both lyrically and in the strength of the arrangements, the thought that’s gone into the juxtaposition of rough and skin-soft sonics throughout. Similarly, the influences from contemporary R&B and pop bleed in seamlessly.

While there’s less of the hifalutin linguistics that made the younger Wild Beasts such a treat, the wordplay is still gorgeous. See ‘Pregnant Pause’, where Thorpe sings of "a pillow talk patois from a land long gone" and "There is a tongue that we speak in / No-one else got the meaning", which could refer both to the language of love between two individuals and Wild Beasts’ words themselves.

Coupled with this lyrical streamlining, ‘Pregnant Pause’ is of one the many songs here that makes a real virtue of simplicity. A notable calling card of Present Tense are Talbot’s drums, at times generously submitted to the machine, elsewhere subtle rolls and fills. This dexterity means that the dynamics and arrangements, while less instant than before, are far more subtle. When the synths suddenly drop in midway through ‘A Dog’s Life’, it’s no mere flick of the wrists, but a full-body, engorged rush. ‘Pregnant Pause’ builds from a languid despond into something sumptuous and strange.

An interesting secondary current in Present Tense, and one that comes out in the first two tracks, is its location in a here-and-now that’s broader than emotions alone. See ‘Wanderlust’, which riffs on class and sex and recalls Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s wonderful ‘I Spy’ and ‘Mis-Shapes’. In it, Thorpe sings of class vengeance on those "solemn in their wealth", who buy their way ahead in life – "Funny how that little pound buys a lot of luck". The protagonists of the song, though, are "decadent beyond our means", "high in our poverty", warning that "with us the world feels voluptuous". This continues in ‘Nature Boy’, all cuckold fantasy and borders crossed: "Your only joy, your only bliss / your lady wife around his lips / the things she said she’d never do / a little fun for me, and none for you". Then there’s ‘Daughters’, in which Fleming paints an apocalyptic picture, with "all the pretty children sharpening their blades". I’ve no idea whether this Wild Beast has had young, but the song perfectly encapsulates parental worry about the kind of world a child has been born into: "where my daughter passes only ruins remain".

Yet as the record moves on, it becomes calmer, apparently a more direct outpouring of Fleming and Thorpe’s own lives. The heterosexual lunging of their early records was cartoon, and as they’ve evolved from (as Fleming put it) "young men to shit men", the masculinity of their music has danced and teased and here seems to have reached some kind of resolution. Thankfully that doesn’t mean they’ve become an indie band for men to express their sensitive side after the emotionally lubricating effects of seven lagers, like Elbow or Doves. Instead, Present Tense expressing something far more sensual, and sensuality is hardly something one associates with other, common-or-garden British indie band. More than anything else, there’s a feeling here that Wild Beasts are looking toward a contentedness, a stability, singing "a simple beautiful love is worth countless triumphs" (‘Simple Beautiful Truth’), no longer "the wild one that nothing would stick to" (‘New Life’).

Wild Beasts have talked about how how the album was created not only against the endless musical possibilities of the internet, but the impact that it’s had on relationships and sex. Present Tense has a yearning for enduring ideas of love – "How we feel now was felt by the ancients" as ‘Mecca’ has it – and, just as their old lyrics about sex were crude without being crass, dirty-minded without becoming misogynist, on this excellent album they manage to embrace modern romance without being schmaltzy, ersatz or twee. It’s another remarkable achievement from this wonderful group, and all comes to perfect conclusion on final track ‘Palace’, one of the best songs they’ve ever recorded. A graceful piano ballet, Numan synths, it uses the metaphor of buildings for love ("this is a palace / that was a squat") with lyrics that strip away the last vestiges of any Wild Beasts caricature. Instead, this is sex and sincerity ("We may be savage and raw but at the core / We’ve higher needs"), a realisation that you don’t have to be on your own to change yourself: "You remind me of the person I wanted to be / before I forgot". Love never tastes so sweet than after a foul debauch; Wild Beasts couldn’t have got here without what they were before. It’ll be odes to vegetable gardening and domestic bliss next, mark my words.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today