When Kendal four-piece Wild Beasts re-entered the studio last year to start work on their latest EP, they faced a dilemma. Six years, two albums and one Mercury Prize nomination since breaking onto the British indie scene with debut Limbo, Panto, they had released 2011’s Smother, a record of musical and lyrical maturity that won the band near-universal critical acclaim and the adoration of hipsters everywhere. The question was: how could they possibly follow it up?
With the release of Present Tense, fans at last have their answer. Understated, challenging and ultimately brilliant, the album builds upon Smother’s skeletal instrumentation and lyrical preoccupation with sexuality and broken modern masculinity by smothering both with rich, expansive production values. The flamboyant, vaudevillian spirit and jittery guitar lines that characterised Limbo, Panto and follow-up Two Dancers are almost entirely discarded in favour of a sonic palette dominated by dense, ominous synthesisers and the inventive, hypnotic rhythms of drummer Chris Talbot – a man who seems physically incapable of playing a straight four-to-the-floor. The result is a brooding, atmospheric effort every bit as impressive as its predecessor, without feeling stagnant or clichéd.
Opener and first single Wanderlust can be viewed as a statement of artistic intent for the album that follows. From the frantic drums to the sinister, descending synth line and indignant lyrics (“We’re decadent beyond our means”, “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck”), it acts as a perfect primer for the darker, more atmospheric tone. Common among the album’s stand-out tracks – particularly Mecca, Daughters and beautiful album-closer Palace – is the interplay between bassist Hayden Thorpe’s distinct tenor and the resonant baritone of Tom Fleming, something which has recently developed into a signature element of their sound. Despite their new, more electronic direction, the two vocalists ensure that the album could never be mistaken for anything other than a Wild Beasts record. Indeed, the heavy, swirling synths that dominate Present Tense – many of the songs wouldn’t feel out of place on the Drive soundtrack – are arguably the quartet’s most effective attempt yet to musically accompany their lyrical content of lust, alienation and fractured modern masculinity.
Wild Beasts have forged their own distinct musical path in the six years since Limbo, Panto – and Present Tense finds the band at the peak of their lyrical and songwriting ambition. Despite exploring new sounds and emotions, it nevertheless maintains the wit, audacity and musicianship that have become their trademarks. While the new album might lack the immediate highlights of previous records – Hayden Thorpe’s ridiculously catchy twin bass-vocal riff on All the King’s Men for example, or Bed of Nails irrepressible groove – every note and lyric works to create an irresistible, all-encompassing atmosphere on an album that rewards repeated listening with its depth and musical intelligence. Which is to say that Present Tense is Wild Beasts’ most consistent, cohesive effort yet.