Wild Beasts have always been fantasists: four young men from Kendal who, finding the humdrum world around them wanting, transfigured it into a bawdy and beautiful playground. Their 2008 debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ invented its own strange realm of archaic, dandyish guitar-pop. ‘Two Dancers’, released in 2009, upped the ante with its tales of caddish courting and illicit fumbles down dark back alleys. And 2011’s ‘Smother’ saw them replaying memory tapes of lost loves, endlessly self-flagellating and cut off from reality.
Real life, though, can’t be ignored forever. With ‘Present Tense’, Wild Beasts have waved in the modern world for the first time. Tom Fleming has spoken of how this time round, they worked less in isolation, spending studio sessions flicking through YouTube videos or chuckling at dog memes, welcoming in a bit of 21st century noise. The result is an LP that feels more in sync with contemporary music than ever before. There are notes here of Oneohtrix Point Never, Clams Casino, and Tim Hecker. Crucially, though, ‘Present Tense’ roams a landscape which couldn’t have been charted by anyone else.
You’ll have heard ‘Wanderlust’ by now, an electro tumble which turns the draggy synths of ‘Smother’ decadent and gothic. “We’ll feel things they’ll never feel”, croons Hayden Thorpe. This, of course, is a band who could find crumbs of romance in the most mundane forest. But Thorpe’s lyrics are tinged with a sense of modern strife, too, a rejoinder to the haves from the have-nots: “They’re solemn in their wealth/We’re high in our poverty.”
It’s not the record’s only insurrectionary stirring. Wild Beasts would never deign to do something so crude as a state-of-nation address, but the sinister ‘Daughters’, a thing of sparse percussion and moody synths, finds Tom Fleming threatening bloody revolution; a devilish fantasy of “pretty children sharpening their blades”, plotting a hyper-violent uprising against the selfish old guard.
But there’s no need to rely purely on polemics when you can channel inspiration from the world’s most unlikely sources. ‘A Dog’s Life’ details the final breaths of a faithful canine with stinging, sorrowful guitar, and is all the more affecting for its simplicity. ‘Nature Boy’, meanwhile, was inspired by watching WWE wrestling, but rather than spandex-clad pantomime, it feels leeringly unpleasant and downright naughty, Tom growling: “I’m the thing you fenced in/I’m 10 men.” Dying dogs and oiled-up beefcakes: who else could mine gold from such oddball subject matter?
There havee been other changes since ‘Smother’. The delicate flourishes and loping grooves are gone, replaced by stranger, denser arrangements like the electronic fug of ‘New Life’ and sweet, nagging piano of ‘Past Perfect’. There’s a reason, too, why the band have joked that they’re less obsessed with “fucking” now. Before, Hayden sounded like a weary glutton, tired of feasting on flesh and rutting purely for perfunctory purposes. Here, he sounds rejuvenated on the swirling dance-floor shimmer of ‘Mecca’ with its staccato beats and saucy come-ons. Elsewhere, the luscious ‘Sweet Spot’ – a hybrid of delicate curls of ‘Two Dancers’-style guitars and jagged slashes of electronica – finds him cooing “Just allow me a final divine act” like the giddiest of suitors.
If it’s possible to distil all that’s great about ‘Present Tense’ into just one song, though, it’s ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’. Their most straightforward pop moment ever, it could double up as a mission statement: a snake-hipped reboot of early Talk Talk with glassy, glossy synths and Hayden singing “There’s a beauty out there/You just gotta know where”. That’s Wild Beast’s mantra, alright – finding treasure where others wouldn’t think of treading. This time, though, they’ve widened their search, rooted around in the present and found something unbelievably precious.