In their infancy Wild Beasts were one of the most unique, idiosyncratic bands in the world, let alone the country. In the years since their debut album Limbo, Panto, their sound has become less and less immediately identifiable, Hayden Thorpe’s histrionic vocals finding a comfortable middle ground, intricate guitar work finding itself replaced by layers of synths. That’s not to say the band’s output during this transition hasn’t been excellent for the most part, but I’ve always found myself being left a little cold by the sanding down of Wild Beasts’ sharper edges.
So it’s a pleasant surprise that the electronic elements on Present Tense are for the most part, warm and complimentary. The synthesisers may not always work quite so well, and could possibly have given way to guitars at some point for a better end result, but the Kendal quartet seem to have fully mastered their keyboards and how they’re best used. Album opener “Wanderlust” uses the choral effects so popular Oneohtrix Point Seven and Holly Herndon to create a propulsive, ominous rush, which only gets more threatening and uncompromising as it rolls along and the bass becomes more prominent. A coda of “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck/in your mother tongue, what’s the verb ‘to suck’?” certainly adds to the aural scowl, as well as firing shots at over-Americanised contemporaries. Closing track “Palace” evokes Talk Talk playing lullabies and when the guitars and synths both step into the spotlight at the same time on “Sweet Spot”, it’s truly divine. It shimmers and sways and charms its way into your heart where the Wild Beasts of the past would’ve been a little rougher and uncouth. “Daughters” is a complete contrast, built on a backbone of Chris Talbot’s percussion (superb throughout) and possibly the densest the band’s dalliances with electronica has ever been with a cavernous instrumental final third which verges on house music.
Lyrically there’s what could either be seen as a change of focus or a maturation; no longer are Thorpe and Tom Fleming narrating solely through a world of carnality, describing the pleasures of the flesh in ways that would make Prince blush. Instead Present Tense prefers to present situations more tender, more personal and intimate without an intense longing for the old in-out. There’s still a finger in the pie of physical acts - “Palace“‘s "I could learn you like the blinded would do, feeling our way through the dark" and "just surrender your limbs to my every whim/we are lovers, we are cartwheeling" on “Mecca” see to that - but the band’s view is spread wider this time. The gentle “Pregnant Pause” entails that familiar aspect of a relationship, where you have your very own language between the two of you: "speak to me in our tongue/when all the other words only come out wrong". “Nature Boy” details a young man addressing a husband he has cuckolded and is a reference not only to WWE hall of famer and legendary playboy Ric Flair (no mentions of a figure-four leglock however) but, as Thorpe stated in an interview with DIY, “an illustration of that myth of the audacious male who’s all-conquering”, which is a very accurate description of pretty much every wrestling character ever. The aforementioned “Daughters” is as worrisome in its words as its doomy electronic outro would have you imagine; a nightmarish vision of "all the pretty children sharpening their blades" in a possibly apocalyptic future "where my daughter passes only ruins remain".
Present Tense represents an older, wiser Wild Beasts. Their first three albums were more immediate, spreading themselves on a plate, making things available from the get-go, like a young man relentless in flirtation, eager and determined to make an impression. This album is more confident in its abilities, its strengths; it can hold things back, be more subtle, charm and seduce, take its time and not rush headfirst into things. It also casts its net wider, as seen most obviously on “A Dog’s Life”. Maybe it’s just something about me to do with our canine friends (I still well up when thinking about the end of My Dog Skip and that Last Minutes With Oden video on Youtube… dammit, there I go again), but this track detailing the last moments of, you guessed, a dog’s life is so heartbreaking and tender, possibly more so than anything Wild Beasts have done before.
On this album Wild Beasts have made an accomplished and often beautiful evolution. They may not have many of the spikes and snarls and spots of years gone by but they’re a new animal now, even more thrilling and exciting and vital.