Wild Beasts - Present Tense | Album Review | By Volume

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Wild Beasts

Present Tense

In which Wild Beasts’ maturity finds them inhabiting a distinct shape and drawing a sound around it.

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Author: on March 13, 2014
Domino Records

Four tracks into Present Tense’s body of eleven wonders, on crepuscular early-album standout “Sweet Spot”, brothers-from-another-mother Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming are exchanging vocal duties, flitting in and out as if they were mid-breath modulations of the same enamored soul. Effortless and momentary as the wind which ruffles trees. “There is a godly state”, they sing, a traded-off line of convergence, “where the real and the dream may consummate.Mmm … pause for effect.

“Sweet Spot” by all accounts, not the least of which being instrumental, seems to be about orgasm. What then, to make of its pretty unsexy surface-flirtation with Cartesian betweenness? I pose this question seriously, unlike that one time I compared a Jicks lyric to William Wordsworth. The answer, I think, is simply that Wild Beasts do fancy corporeal-imaginative self-analysis as desirable, a metaphysics on the first date kind of thing. And if there’s any one common denominator between the Beasts’ twilit orgy-verse and a man of crisis like René Descartes, it is that both seek to conquer the same mode: life in the present tense.

Do Thorpe and Crew mean to summon up some French Renaissance figure you may or may not know as well as you might, say, William Baldwin’s filmography? I shrug. Absolutely not! That’s me playing connect-the-clusters. I wouldn’t put it past them, though, if they had. On Smother, the quartet’s previous outing, their rhetoric’s rarefied leanings produced literary allusions and apostrophes to Coleridge and Hamlet, respectively. But no such white necromancy here. Instead, Present Tense writes itself.

Looking straight ahead, it holds a homemade sonic dowser to dated territories. It is lush. It is a minimalist’s jungle. Its sneaky production brings to mind a cowboy in a campfire tale, who upon hearing voices amid a spacious frontier, beseeching him to stuff his pockets with the day’s last dirt, dismounts and does so — then wakes at first light to heavy Levis filled with gold. “Funny how that little pound buys a lot of luck”, Thorpe echoes on lead track and galloping single “Wanderlust”, worthily establishing Present Tense with the grace and fuck-all attitude of a cyberpunk Thoroughbred.

Sweet liberty! Dashing abandon! This is Wild Beast’s yang-area and “A Simple Beautiful Truth” is its watering place. Two and a half Moogy minutes so vibrantly re-playable I can’t help but fancy them the theme music to Rust Cohle’s super-happy doppelganger, flat-circling again and again and again. Until, that is, he moves ahead to next track “A Dog’s Life”, whereupon his stoic mopery recidivates. Welcome to Tom Fleming’s yin side, which beckons to the journeyman of “Wanderlust” and, as soon as “Nature Boy” hits, traps him. It is this back-and-forth struggle between Thorpe’s and Fleming’s light and dark pitches that more or less inform Present Tense’s forty-one minutes.

“A Dog’s Life” hurts. Talk Talk-reminiscent use of negative space (more prominent in the bleary, sub-aquatic “New Life”) allows Fleming’s images full swing. A woman is reverse-personified. Drooling, done up in lipstick, left in the rain, forgotten. It’s slow-paced, easy to nod off to, bookended by jams as it were, but once grasped, the gravity is unshakable. Shivering and astray, “A Dog’s Life” hurts. “Daughters” on the other hand, throbs. Find me two lines this side of 2014 more contextually devastating than – “All the pretty children sharpening their blades / Where my daughter passes only ruins remain.” – and I’ll probably have to adopt a puppy. Selections from Benji don’t count.

“Daughters” is also where Wild Beasts’ brave choice in stripped-back – and again I use the word dated – eletro-percussive production tenders its strongest case. The more I listen to Present Tense, the more I ask myself: how ridiculously awesome would this album have sounded in 2006? Whether my asking this sort of question is affecting my critical judgment of it I cannot really say, nor if it is done so deservedly. Because even when “Daughters” becomes a hybrid These New Puritans/Animal Collective/Donkey Kong battle anthem, it doesn’t feel very crowded. Maybe not crowded enough. This goes for the entire thing. Not a soundwave wasted, but always something, possibly, missing. Few records can boast this odd conundrum.

I bet it’s on purpose. For argument’s sake, let’s author the I.E.C., or Intention-Execution Corollary, a variable measure of “perfection” that changes from artist-to-artist, album-to-album, depending on the respective thesis, endgame and consistency: a stupid, imperfect measure no writer should ever use and everyone does anyway … if you’re still with me, what I’m trying to say’s that Present Tense is unflagging in being noncommittal. It’s unflinching in raising problems and betraying their resolution, it’s happy celebrating on the side, purposefully leaving just enough space for you. You and your thoughts give the album its presence though. You make up the difference. A lesser Daniel would end here, remarking on how Wild Beasts have really, really made an album, sum-bullshit like that; forget this sentence and concede that this paragraph correctly interpreted the “is it an album?” riddle.

In this way, Present Tense is one of Zeno’s paradoxes. Never quite in the present, except, hold on – – whoops, I almost forgot to mention “Palace”. A song in which Wild Beasts diverge no longer and in which Present Tense surpasses itself, finally. A career-best cut that only gets better with each return. Fine trip, wasn’t it, huh, “but this is a palace, and that was a squat”, Thorpe concludes. Agree? Disagree? Well, rock-paper-scissors-black hole! Your opinion doesn’t matter, and there’s this grand eclipse that says so.

“Winter was long. Now we’ve come to feast.
We may be savage and raw, but at the core, we’ve higher needs.”
[Fade out, with a warm, alluring hum…]

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