“There’s an indelible quality to Wild Beasts that I just can’t explain,” I wrote in my original review of their show at the Echoplex in 2011. Frankly, I still can’t explain it. You just don’t find a group like Wild Beasts very often. They’re a band built of layers, whose music reflects their honest and poetic lyricism, and whose lyricism is progressive to the point that, by its very nature, it has helped propel their music into new territories with each album release.
Wild Beasts released their fourth album, Present Tense, last week on the heels of what is arguably their most successful album to date and my personal favorite album of 2011 by a wide margin, Smother. That earlier album tightened the chains on Wild Beasts for the better, introducing a tamer texture to their repertoire but equally displaying a deeper and darker conceptual focus, which allowed their deft lyrical precision and dueling vocals to come to the forefront and blend into a devastatingly beautiful forty minutes, front to back.
The sum of its parts isn’t exactly greater than the parts on this fourth journey, but the album more or less lives up to its predecessor’s strengths, with the band continuing to explore intoxicating instrumentation, sultry vocals, and earnest lyricism that listeners can’t help but sink into.
Lead single “Wanderlust” thrusts us forward from where we left off on Smother, promising a Wild Beasts of attained knowledge. The track is a magnificent way to start the record, with hazy synths propelling and drums keeping the wheels spinning while Hayden Thorpe croons, evoking something out of Wild Beasts “wilder” past but utilizing the boozy atmospherics displayed in their last venture.
“It’s a feeling that I’ve come to trust,” Thorpe says before the song bridges into a gorgeous and gazy second half, with Thorpe confidently remarking, “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” over phasing keyboards. The track itself simply oozes confidence, starting at Point A and clearly ending at a Point B, significantly growing out of the band’s previous works and becoming something else entirely on its own.
“Wanderlust” is such a mightily stunning track that it is almost unfortunate that the ten tracks that follow it don’t repeat this feat. I say almost because the remaining ten tracks are wonderfully emotive and exploratory in their own rights, but mostly because they follow in the footsteps of their predecessor and not because they carve their own path.
“Nature Boy” and “Sweet Spot” are particularly kaleidoscopic and reminiscent of tracks like “Reach A Bit Further,” whose expansive bass and glimmery nuances prove delicious. “Pregnant Pause” and “Past Perfect” fuse piano, bass drums, and electronics in the vein of “Invisible” and “Deeper.” The rich color palette of “Palace” is similar in structure to “Albatross.” You get the picture.
These new tracks are by no means derivative. If anything, Wild Beasts is continuing to explore the same stylistic subtleties and territories that made Smother such a dramatic departure from its predecessors, and they succeed gracefully here. Thorpe, Tom Fleming, Ben Little, and Chris Talbot exhibit their best musicianship, attentive to the ever in-flux instrumentation while still feeling in sync with each other at all moments throughout the album.
Present Tense, for all its bounty, just doesn’t lift as a whole, with Wild Beasts seemingly preferring to collect the eleven best, most gorgeous tracks from their current sessions on a record instead of molding them into a fully-embodied and conceptual whole as they had previously. Ironically, the tracks “Mecca” and “A Simple Beautiful Truth” are the only decidedly different tracks here. With ’80s-influenced short-burst electronics and heavy synth pads, they feel like they were made to stand out or stray from the pack, but the songs are placed in such meticulously chosen positions within the tracklist that they actually flow naturally with the rest of the album.
It was inevitable for Wild Beasts to release a fourth LP, and it was inevitable that that LP would not entirely live up the band’s 2011 masterstroke. However, while Present Tense isn’t the immediate, growth-by-leaps-and-bounds album that its predecessor was, it is a logical next step for a band wanting to capitalize on the arresting elements that made their prior album such a breakthrough in the first place. Everything that Wild Beasts imbues is again on full display, and as they continue to explore their unique sound, I will listen intently.
Present Tense is now available on Domino Records, and if you can snag tickets, you can see Wild Beasts perform an exclusive SOLD OUT show at The Troubadour on Thursday, March 6th.