[7 March 2014]
“With us, the world feels voluptuous”, warbles Hayden Thorpe on Present Tense opener “Wanderlust”, and he’s not kidding—the track feels as supple as blushing flesh, all sultry stare and come-hither curves. Wild Beasts, in a pop landscape so routinely hypersexualized it makes fucking sound as transgressive as a block of mild cheddar, specializes in making the rumor of sex freshly thrilling, mysterious, even threatening. The band’s secret is restraint: it knows implication is always more alluring than vulgar literalism, the tease or the chase almost guaranteed to be better than the moment you actually indulge. That idea is Present Tense‘s musical manifesto, as well, and it guarantees the album tightens its hold with repeated listens, all its delayed gratification and feints away from climax better to keep you under its thumb.
Present Tense follows the template of Wild Beasts’s last record, Smother (2011), in privileging spare synth-laden arrangements over the high-wire theatrics of Two Dancers (2009) and Limbo, Panto (2008). Dancers and Limbo saw Thorpe and co-vocalist Tom Fleming making music to match their jaw-dropping, nearly operatic vocals, with big choruses and Chris Talbot’s octopus-armed drumming fueling an inimitable blend of chamber pop’s high-minded tone and post-punk’s visceral impact. Smother pulled back the throttle quickly enough to give many fans whiplash, but it was easy to acclimate to that album’s slow-burning beauty, the palpable and often menacing ache strewn across it like a handful of dirt on fresh snow. Present Tense pushes the band further into electro-rock territory, and where Smother used synths to provide clean-keyed atmosphere and melody, the synth textures on Present Tense are equally likely to beef up the band’s low end and add a welcome dose of scuzz to these songs. “Wanderlust” rumbles like a monstrous, empty belly; the bridge of “Sweet Spot” sees its synths reduced to shreds, perfectly placed percussive bursts with the texture of something caught in the throat.
That feeling, a little phlegm in the back of your mouth, a hint of the ugly profaning an otherwise pristine and smoothly functioning machine, extends across Present Tense. Of course, contrary to what your priest may have told you as a child, it’s nice to feel a touch profane. So, when Fleming’s baritone hits you in “Nature Boy” with a line like, “Your lady wife ‘round his lips / The thing she said she’d never do / A little fun for me and none for you”, the discomfort you might feel comes laced with a heady and dose of the illicit, a masculine aggression made more appealing by the way the music surrounding it cloaks the threat of domination in a lush, unapologetically pretty arrangement. Talbot’s insistent beat and the pulsating synth beneath it inches the song toward a typically male rudeness, but it never tips its hand entirely. It’s a masterful display, and only one example on an album full of them.
For a record so concerned with the physical, Present Tense makes the strange—though not to say ineffectual—decision of minimizing Talbot, one of the best rock drummers playing today, even further than on Smother. At times, he’s relegated to seeming like a human 808, with songs like “Wanderlust” and “Sweet Spot” setting their beats in the first few bars and letting them remain unchanged, as if on loop, throughout. This insistence does work, and the repetition propels the songs into a sort of carnal, hypnotic space. But it’s difficult not to miss the way Talbot, as on Two Dancers‘s “This Is Our Lot”, can make a beat at once inventively complex and perfectly economical. Still, he finds ways to work within Present Tense‘s more constrained palate—the evocative rattle he brings to “A Dog’s Life”, less “a trick” as Ian Cohen of Pitchfork has it than simply knowing how to operate a drumstick, adds a brilliant sense of decay to a song that finishes on an image of death. That cohesion, the way Wild Beasts can’t seem to play a bum note or place a single syllable in the wrong verse, makes Present Tense one of the most quietly exhilarating albums in recent memory, and all the more so for using its evocative power to unsettle and seduce in equal measure.