Kendal, UK, foursome Wild Beasts took a bit of a sabbatical after wrapping up their world tour supporting 2011’s Smother, their third album in four years. Co-frontman Tom Fleming told Pitchfork last month, “We went away and had a good think about how we could justify our continued existence.” That’s a pretty humble statement from a group commonly criticized for their pretension (the original name of the band was Fauves, aka “Wild Beasts” in French). Some time off has done them good, as Present Tense is their most refined work to date. They’ve cut away the fat while still grappling with all of their favorite weighty topics like sex, death, and God.
From the Kubrickian synths that encase lead cut “Wanderlust”, it’s clear that this is a newly streamlined Wild Beasts. “We’re decadent beyond our means,” Hayden Thorpe accuses. It’s not a self-reflection, though. This is a biting, finger-pointing song, perhaps the most political the band has ever veered. Between atmospheric minor key mood swells and indictments of the British class system, there’s a lot going on. But here and throughout Present Tense, Wild Beasts have pared down their sound, yet are still able to provide a sonic gut check that’s hard to categorize. Case and point, “Wanderlust” closes with Thorpe firing the ultimate affront: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.” It’s a powerful expression of deep-seated apathy and also one of the album’s most striking moments.
This battle between the brutish and the beautiful reoccurs throughout Present Tense. “Nature Boy” takes its name from the nickname for professional wrestler Ric Flair and paints a picture of an illicit affair. Sparse art prog instrumentation snaps like an unhooked bra strap, as uber masculine imagery unfurls. “A Dog’s Life” manages to take even the companionship of man’s best friends and give it a sinister twist. Mile-high synths brew into a thunderstorm that the titular canine is led out into: “Tie it up and pat its head, never speak of it again.”
It’s interesting then, that in an album with so many dark patches lays easily the sunniest track the band has ever written. “Palace” closes out Present Tense, and this necessary respite after 40 minutes of dense listening is a straight tearjerker. Thorpe swoons, “In detail you are even more beautiful than from afar.” The album’s second half errs on the side of somberness, but Thorpe’s falsetto backed by a euphoric staccato synth scale acts like a rainbow through the gloom. He’s come a long way from the person in “Nature Boy”, the man whose animal urges would’ve blocked any ability to appreciate this subtle beauty.
Wild Beasts have always known how to build and feed off of sexual tension, a trait intensified on Present Tense. Words like “voluptuous,” “taut,” and “consummate” are peppered throughout and are impossible to hear outside of a sexual context. Bodily desires raise to biblical proportions on “Mecca”, which sports baby-making lines like “I know how you feel, I’m a pilgrim and you’re the shrine” and “Where the body goes, the mind will follow.” You might think you were in an R. Kelly song if it wasn’t for Thorpe’s near-operatic register and the icy guitar accents. This venture into the world of the faithful succeeds thanks to its interesting play on man’s most carnal instincts, but elsewhere Wild Beasts don’t fare as well. The most egregious offense is the “Jesus was a woman” line in “Daughters”, which borders on something you’d hear during poetry night at an impossibly stereotypical feminist bookstore.
The guitars here are very few and far between, as was the case on Smother. They’ve refined their sound, sure, and Present Tense definitely won’t lose Wild Beasts any fans, but it likely won’t gain them many new ones either. This is by no means easy listening. Wild Beasts make fantastic headphones records that can sometimes ask too much from the listener. With their hyper-literate metaphors about lust, love, and God, they’ve carved out a nice little spot for themselves in the world halfway down festival bills. By most accounts, Present Tense fends off stagnation, but without some new tricks up their sleeve, one wonders how long they can avoid that fate.
Essential Tracks: “Wanderlust”, “Palace”, and “Mecca”