According to vocalist and bassist Tom Fleming, one of the main influences behind Wild Beasts’ fourth album, Present Tense, is the pasted-together production style of hip-hop producers like Clams Casino. “The idea of being anti-musical,” Fleming told Dummy, suggesting that knowing how to play an actual instrument will soon be less important than possessing an ear for how music should sound. Present Tense certainly lends credence to the importance of intuition in songwriting, its feverish art rock owing more to mood and motion than the mastery of any particular instrument. But the album is also far from some sort of patchwork effort, and contrary to Fleming’s praise, no clear line can trace its inspiration back to Clams Casino’s mélange of chopped-n’-screwed, pitch-shifted vocal samples. Yet that’s undeniably a good thing, as the shadowy, flirtatious Present Tense is Wild Beasts’ most cohesive effort yet.
“Wanderlust” opens up the proceedings, a stuttering, softly growling descent into a world Wild Beasts have visited before: British upper-class depravity. This is a band that’s regularly explored the ups and downs of libertine excess, especially as it pertains to both the 1% and Anglocentrism. In fact, in both aesthetic and lyrical content, Present Tense is a companion to its predecessor, Smother, with both albums exploring the twisted nature of modern decadence. “With us the world feels voluptuous,” croons Hayden Thorpe, who then turns cold and calculated as a strangely mechanized choir adds a dirge-like quality to the otherwise dynamic track: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.” As both Two Dancers and Smother demonstrated, the grotesque isn’t far behind the sensual in Wild Beasts’ world, and Present Tense conveys the same kind of menacingly capricious mood that might accompany an existence of bored privilege. Thorpe adopts a similar posture in “Pregnant Pause,” playing a sympathetic lover in the song’s quieter first half, then passive-aggressively sewing doubt into the relationship as shimmering percussion tenses up the once-solitary piano line.
But Present Tense’s greatest triumph might be its technical focus. As talented as this band is, they’ve had a tendency to get distracted on previous albums, their attention pulled in a dozen different directions as they attempted to craft supremely intricate and baroque arrangements. Present Tense possesses a complexity that’s not so calculated, focusing on the passage of music rather than layer upon layer of sound. Its 11 synth-drenched tracks are more bare than those on Smother, but they move much more fluidly, their liquiform seduction establishing a contrast with the band’s ominous lyrics. “Between the wound and end, between bone dry and the dripping wet, there is a gardless state where the real and the dream may consummate,” Fleming and Thorpe sing on the aptly titled “Sweet Spot,” just as the track’s bristly melody stabs upward from beneath the bassline, one of many moments on Present Tense that artfully unify sex, violence, grace, and splendor.