ALBUM: Present Tense
ARTIST: Wild Beasts
Present Tense, the Kendal, UK band’s fourth full-length, is a deceptively large-sounding record, rich with both organic and electronic textures. Its first tracks are filled with more pomp than anything else the band has done. That’s the surface-level impression, but a deeper analysis finds the nuance of seasoned musicians truly holding the record together. What sets Present Tense apart from similar groups’ offerings—like M83’s mirthful but overblown Midnight City—is that Wild Beasts still puts stock in the performance aspect of their music. With Present Tense, they’ve figured out that sometimes less can transmit more, and they’ve found a way to straddle a fine line often splintered by other bands making rock and dance music. The opening track, “Wanderlust”, alternates between tight trap drums and more processed percussion samples; midway through the song, an organic bass line replaces the low-end synth. Co-frontman Hayden Thrope’s smooth, unprocessed voice mixes well with the swirling electronics. On “Mecca”, a sharp, tinny guitar undercuts the extravagance of the synth-heavy chorus. The hybridization of these elements gives the songs a more complex aesthetic—there’s a warmth in the composition. The danger here is the bastardization of musical styles, too many wires getting crossed, or not getting anything right by attempting too much. But Present Tense thankfully doesn’t feel forced but for a track or two. In less proficient hands, this aesthetic go-between would be a total mess.
Unfortunately, the band’s commitment to sonic complexity is not enough to offset the glib nature present in some of the lyrics. In fact, it only highlights their head-scratching strangeness. When, on “Wanderlust”, Thorpe sings something as off-putting as, “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” it’s difficult for the listener to feel included in the narrative. Though the point may be a send-up, particular lines ring as absurd. The music behind the words is so engaging that there’s no way to see around and into the farce. The above line finishes with another clunker, “In your mother tongue, what’s the verb ‘to suck’?” Huh? The band has long been accused of pretentiousness (their original name was the French word for Wild Beasts), and the album rolls its eyes a bit. The arching attitude of Present Tense feels in line with a certain rock star shtick, something akin to The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor adding that last Taylor to his name for whatever reason. Someone like Morrissey has the discography to (mostly) justify his peculiar whining, but Wild Beasts are still without a wallop that gives credence to the bombast. They’ve made four solid albums now, yes, but nothing truly memorable after the album stops. Sometimes Present Tense comes off as too snarky for its own good, and it detracts from the mood it strives to create.
That’s all not to say that there aren’t some very good songs on Present Tense. “Mecca” is one of the catchiest tracks I’ve heard in a while, with a hook perfect for belting in the shower. The album hits a fantastic stride in its middle, with “Pregnant Pause”, “A Simple Beautiful Thing”, and “A Dog’s Life”. The tracks are simple, catchy, and affecting in their proximity. It’s a pleasant and easy listening block. 2011’s Smother found the band weaving electronic elements into their music and this one continues the trend. So, too, do the vocal duties shift from Thorpe’s higher vocals (reminiscent of Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth), and bassist Tom Fleming, whose Antony Hegarty-esque quiver handles the lower registers. Fleming sounds incredibly subdued when compared to Thorpe, and as the album progresses, the energy slows as Fleming is given more microphone time. Tracks like “A Dog’s Life”—while pleasant and ethereal—feel a bit genteel and sapped in comparison to the album’s energetic first half.
The title of Present Tense invokes a sense of the here and now, like the band wanted to discard some of the excess of their previous work and focus on the moment. This works well in some cases, but sometimes the barer songscapes don’t feel stripped down, but rather incomplete. Compare “Palace” to “A Dog’s Life”. “A Dog’s Life” is stark in its composition, with drony textures under a somber, haunting vocal. Nothing else is necessary to fill the song and achieve that somber reflection. Conversely, the synth on “Palace” seems plucked from a Trust b-side, and the fluctuating vocals try very hard to latch onto something that just isn’t there. With Present Tense, the band seems to be saying that the feelings and emotions that fill these songs are being processed at this particular time. They’re successful to varying degrees—but sometimes the “first thought, best thought” exploration contradicts the music’s meticulous production. Stripped down, lo-fi aesthetics usually and naturally lead to low-stakes, self-reflective songsmanship, but Present Tense tries cramming the inflated character of big budget rock into a space that’s just not able to contain it.
“All we want is to feel that feeling again.”