Wild Beasts - Present Tense

The long-running UK band slides deeper into electronica on a mostly engaging fourth album.

Additional Info

7.0

ALBUM: Present Tense

ARTIST: Wild Beasts

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Wanderlust
An energetic opening with bass synth and pulsing drumbeat leads into Thorpe’s syrupy voice. The song sounds like a cross between Grizzly Bear and LCD Soundsytem. The music is actually superb, full of energy, and engaging, but the lyrics come across as winking, and a bit glib. Thorpe beings with, “We’re decadent beyond our means” and from there it threatens to offset the mood of the music. The interlude is a pretty, glitchy organ part, reminiscent of something from Radiohead’s Kid A. That’s high praise, and the song is fairly great if you can tune out the lyrics. Though it’s hard to do with the annoying anthemic, “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.”7.8
2. Nature Boy
Drummer Chris Talbot provides a loose syncopated bongo/trap drumbeat, reminiscent of “Deeper” from Smother. Tom Fleming takes his first turn as vocalist and brings out Wild Beasts’ sexual flourishes, as we’ve heard on their prior albums. The song also uses veiled references to wrestling, namely Ric Flair and Jake the Snake, and Fleming puts his own carnal (and slightly comedic) spin on the tangling of sweaty bodies. The melody is interesting, but never moves beyond its initial push, which is disappointing, as the songs feels full of potential to wow. It’s ultimately an instance where the sum doesn’t move past its parts.7.0
3. Mecca
A saccharine, but catchy and technically sound track with one of the deepest earworms of the year. The drums are solid throughout and the jangly guitar that follows the melody is the perfect accompaniment for the electronic elements. Thrope edges to the silly with lines like, “All we want is to know the vivid moment/ Yeah, how we felt now was felt by the ancients,” but the melody is so strong as to excuse it. The band drops out and Thrope leads the song to its end, “All we want is to feel that feeling again.” It makes sense.8.8
4. Sweet Spot
Dreamy, panning guitar floats over a steady backbeat; the song sounds like a slowed down Twin Shadow cut. Fleming’s “oohs” are pleasant and his vocal melody is solid. An 80’s-style synth riffs builds and suddenly drops out, leaving just vocals and sparse drums. It’s an instance where the song’s full idea sounds unfinished, but all the instruments (including the infectious synth) build into an ending that brings the song’s elements to a greater place than where we started.7.6
5. Daughters
The song’s beat sounds like a lesser James Blake creation. It’s in a minor key and succeeds in creating a brooding atmosphere. Fleming’s voice is apt for the music, but he delivers groaners like, “Walking through chicken bones on the floor/ Just a little girl/ Jesus was a woman.” Oof. The industrial synth lead-out is engrossing and builds into a wave of harsh noise; it saves the track from being automatically skippable.6.5
6. Pregnant Pause
A delicate and pretty track that achieves the best of Beasts’ past and present. Thorpe sounds a lot like Dave Longstreth here, playing around at the top of his vocal register. The ping-ponging keyboard is a nice backdrop, but the vocal performance is clearly the showcase here. Thorpe sounds earnest when he croons, “There is a tongue that we speak in/No one else got the meaning/ But, baby, I have… Speak to me in our tongue/ when all the other words only come out wrong…Sometimes you feel like a lost cause.” In this song, Wild Beasts come through as a band on top of their game, making interesting, honest music.8.6
7. A Simple Beautiful Truth
The middle of the album’s best section. Thorpe sings the verses and Fleming backs him up. Their voices aren’t very suited for the same song, and it’s easy to see why they don’t often tread in the others’ songs. It’s a little jarring to hear them try to harmonize, but Fleming’s contentment to be buried as the support doesn’t get in the way as much as it could. The music sounds playful, like a Future Islands cut, and the drums are the steadiest groove that Talbot ever falls into.8.0
8. A Dog’s Life
The song begins with a stuttering drum beat that sounds like the sticks are falling against the skins. Dual guitar tracks prickle back and forth as the bass keeps the song moving forward. The song includes another bridge with most noise removed, aside from the crinkling snare drum and vocals. The difference here than on “Sweet Spot” is that the melancholy of the words and music call for the song to break down like that—to be stripped of its excess. Fleming’s theatric warble holds its own in the minimal landscape, and when the music flares back in, it’s an affecting moment where the Beasts press exactly the right button at the right time.8.2
9. Past Perfect
Thrope sings, “Back then there were no others/ All I knew true beginnings/ We had a gift/ the perfect present…it’s tense for me/ can’t live within a memory,” and the song only offers whispers around him. There’s a tinny guitar line, and another wandering arpeggio that don’t mesh well. Synths build and die in the background. Thrope repeats, “It’s tense for me,” ad nauseam, and the one-sided narrative feels petulant, essentially leveling any pathos in the listener.6.0
10. New Life
Fleming’s breathy vocal dominates this song, rightly so, as the background is only a sustained synth note and melotron-sounding chords coming from another keyboard. Fleming’s voice rises into a beautiful sounding slide, and the track builds into a chorus of voices behind him. The vocal accompaniment is reminiscent of something from the self-titled Bon Iver record. The atmosphere on the track is brooding, and somber. It’s instance of the band nailing it.8.0
11. Palace
A curious album closer, this track borders on a sentimentality that the rest of the album largely eschews. The differing synth textures clash with one another instead of meshing to create the desired harmonious landscape. Vocals like, “You remind me of the person I wanted to be/ before I forgot” come off as lazy instead of insightful and impacting. The song dies out without much closure and the albums lulls to a quiet close. It’s the wrong move for a band whose energy is one of their strongest attributes.6.0
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



comments powered by Disqus
Tagged under

News

Watch!

Listen