Album Reviews - Reviews

Wild Beasts – Present Tense

wild beasts

When Kendal quartet Wild Beasts emerged in 2008 with debut album Limbo, Panto, it seemed that, at last, here was a band ready to rally to Neil Hannon’s battle-cry, “Elegance against ignorance. Difference against indifference. Wit against shit”. It’s an impression that subsequent albums have only served to strengthen.

Fourth album Present Tense finds them venturing further out into the electronic wasteland first colonised on Smother. The sounds are scrubbed clean, in places glacially cool, a perfect contrast to emotions that bubble lava-hot beneath the surface. In most respects, it’s their most straightforward work – the vocal histrionics scaled back, sounds streamlined, ideas and their expression distilled to their most potent.

What is sacrificed in terms of vigour and muscularity is replaced by something more contemplative, yet no less affecting. In its coupling of synths, sadness and romanticism, this album finds its closest spiritual forebear in the work of The Blue Nile. It’s no stretch to imagine the gentle yearning of ‘Sweet Spot’, for example – all trembling keys and peals of guitar – fitting snugly on the Scottish band’s classic, A Walk Across The Rooftops.

And where previously Wild Beasts have revelled in the sensual – with Two Dancers an especially bawdy, trousers-round-the-ankles romp – here all, at first, seems buttoned-up, an exercise in restraint. Yet, soon, you can sense sinews chafing against the bonds.

The record opens with lead single ‘Wanderlust’ and the observation that, “We’re decadent beyond our means”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it – no, I’m sure I am – but Wild Beasts have a way of making every word, every sound feel laden with meaning. So, I choose to interpret this as a withering assessment of a society in which moral and ethical standards are perceived as slipping into the mire, a comment on a culture celebrity-obsessed and sex-fixated.

Yet Wild Beasts cannot be spared for, as their music has consistently shown us, they are decadents supreme, concerned, above all else, with the refinement of language and of sound. In this they are pop’s very own dandy highwaymen, their whole ethos seemingly borrowed from Baudelaire’s observation that the dandy should have, “no profession other than elegance… no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty…”. And, my god, Present Tense is nothing if not elegant and beautiful.

‘Wanderlust’ is one of the most strident tracks on the album, the throb and pulse of synths giving heft to lyrics that look to batter and bait. “We’ve a zeal / To feel the things they’ll never feel / They’re solemn in their wealth / We’re high in our poverty”. It’s a blast against excess, against those who are over-stimulated, but feel nothing; the unsheathing of a politicised edge that the group has tended to use only sparingly.

Meanwhile, what was originally thought a dig at labelmates Arctic Monkeys, or any Anglo band singing in an Americanised accent – “In your mother-tongue / What’s the verb to suck?” – is, according to the band themselves, a boot aimed at the swarm of posh boys currently overrunning the music world.

One of Wild Beasts’ defining characteristics is, of course, the vocal interplay between Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming. The former is an angel with a dirty mouth – the falsetto heavenly, the thoughts devilish. The latter’s supple baritone is altogether earthier, a thing that speaks of dirt and blood. They work in delicious tandem on ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’. An unadorned love song, its dazzling pop melody is offset by the contrasting vocals; Thorpe purrs, whilst Fleming grrs.

Taking the reins on ‘Nature Boy’, Fleming’s throaty physicality is riveted tight to taut rhythms and visceral imagery, “Here comes a boy for your dreams, fists and fingers bloodied”, he mutters, half threat, half promise. The song is also a showcase for the dexterity of Chris Talbot; the drumming fierce and precise, giving shape and momentum.

Whilst all four members help flesh out the songs, the bones of the songwriting is split between the two singers. It’s hard not to notice the inescapably melancholic tone of Thorpe’s contributions, the sense of thwarted desire that haunts ‘Mecca’; its artful minimalism recalling Japan, “All we want to know is that vivid moment”, he pleads, wretched for wanting, making clear that it’s a moment seldom felt.

‘Daughters’ is a slow-burning delight with Fleming to the fore, as the soft glowing embers of the song’s first half are fanned to become an electronic conflagration. This gives way to the album’s tender centrepiece, ‘Pregnant Pause’. It’s devastatingly simple, keys caressed by gentle dabs of guitar, attention forced to narrow-in on those words. It’s a song about the communion between lovers, that sacred and closed circle. “Not everyone understands us / There is a tongue that we speak in / No-one else got the meaning / But, baby I have”. And, yet, this is also a song about pain, the pain that only that one can inflict on us, “Sometimes, my heart hurts to watch you… Sometimes, you seem like a lost cause”.

Billowing synths create the dream fog of ‘Past Perfect’. As nostalgia can become a dangerous thing, Thorpe tryies to resist the urge to look back and risk being trapped in the past, turned to stone. We “can’t live within our memories” he warns. So often consumed with an insatiable longing, closing track ‘Palace’, finds him, at last, freed from “The darkened house of love”, face turned to the sun, “The winter was long / Now we’ve come to the feast”. The upbeat mood comes dressed in languid keys and melting rhythms.

On an album of many peaks, ‘A Dog’s Life’ is one of the most dizzying. It can be interpreted quite literally about the end of a dog’s life, but as Fleming has revealed – it’s really about all of us, about getting beyond that hardwired idea of our own fucking importance and false perceptions of our centrality to all that happens in the cosmos. “I’m not like all the others”, is the vain cry. Instead, such egocentric notions are undermined, as Wild Beasts echo, albeit more gracefully, Tyler Durden’s order to, “Listen up, maggots. You are not special…”. And yet, ironically, what Wild Beasts – brave, inventive, brimming with imagination – have created in Perfect Tense is distinct, is special. Maybe, some snowflakes are beautiful and unique after all. Francis Jones

Wild Beasts play Dublin Olympia on Saturday, March 29 and Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on Thursday, May 8.