Self-perception is a curious phenomenon. Everyone hears things differently (as three years of this club have proven!), so what musicians are trying to achieve isn’t necessarily what their audience hears their music as containing. This is part of the reason why ‘influence’ is a crazy concept; people usually use it as a synonym for ‘sounds like’ rather than ‘informed/inspired by’, anyway, but influence can also manifest in ways that simply aren’t sonically identifiable. Things that may seem like obvious inspirations to an audience may never have been intended by the artist, and may be the result of pure, blind happenstance, or else some kind of subliminal, subconscious appropriation, rather than anything deliberate.
Which is a really long-winded way of saying that, like many bands, I’m not sure that Wild Beasts know exactly what they sound like, or appreciate entirely what they’re good at – or, at least, what this singular member of their fanbase thinks they’re good at.
There’s been lots of talk about Present Tense being brave and a change and a statement from various people – most notably Wild Beasts themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is an excellent, moreish record that I adore). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing, and the best bands, in my mind, constantly evolve.
Except that, to my ears, off a dozen plays or more, Present Tense sounds like, if not a repeat, than a very logical progression and next step from Smother, rather than any radical break or revolution. Which is also fine. It may upset the band given their stated intentions, but Present Tense is almost just Smother with synths, if you will. The lyrical sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps, and the sound a little fuller and richer as spidery guitars are replaced by warmly enveloping synthesizers, but they sit together very well as a pair. They’ve also expressed a fear that people might be put off by them ‘going electronic’, but to me, at least, Wild Beasts’ most defining characteristics are their fascinatingly eccentric pair of vocalists, and the subtle interplay of their collective musicianship, rather than ‘guitars’ as a primary aesthetic, so moving to synths, especially after “End Come Too Soon”, seems entirely appropriate.
The other thing that Wild Beasts have talked about repeatedly with regards to this album is their intention to write ‘pop’ songs. Now I’m not saying that they’re operating in the realm of Ornette Coleman or Swans or Keiji Heino here – structurally there are verses and choruses and melodies and hooks, which are the tools you’d expect of ‘pop’ – but, like Smother, Present Tense is a subdued, subtle, sensual record, far more about slowly shifting mood than thrills and spills. It’s resolutely atmospheric rather than anthemic (not that all pop is about anthems, obviously), and as such feels like something slightly other than pop.
Which is fine, because it’s another beautiful and compelling record, and Wild Beasts are a wonderful band of outstanding musicians (their drummer plays like a beautiful drum machine, rather than a real human percussionist). If I have a complaint, it’s that there’s maybe not enough of the whooping, sensual cacophony they used to produce; not enough drama, not enough noise. I’d prefer it if, for instance, after Tom (the deep, throaty vocalist) sings the phrase “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre “Daughters”, in the middle of the album, the synths actually did rend apart and destroy the song, with a dramatic dynamic leap into sonic chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again.
I have absolute confidence that Present Tense will continue to unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond, and that it will prove to be absolutely as good as its predecessors. I’d just prefer it if they’d injected some roiling chaos into their sound as well as all this glorious subtlety; they’ve lost a little of what it was that made them wild.
Tom listened: Curiously, I always think of Wild Beasts as a great band but, on deeper reflection, I have only really clicked with the Two Dancers album and, even on that album, about half of the songs leave me cold. However, All The Kings Men is so, so great and much of what Wild Beasts do is a cut above standard modern indie fodder, that I can’t help thinking they have got an absolute no-holds barred classic album in them yet. Unfortunately, on the basis of a first listen, this isn’t it!
I’ve been listening to Smother a fair bit since Nick played us Present Tense in part because Nick and Rob both revere it and I have always felt I have needed to spend more time with it to truly appreciate its qualities. So I listened to it another three or four times over the course of the last week and, whilst I appreciate the skill and restraint Wild Beasts demonstrate, it’s just too languid for me. As Nick has hinted in his review, Present Tense takes the sound of Smother and smothers (I can think of no better word) it still further. I have no doubt that this was Wild Beasts’ intention, that they have full artistic control over their output and I am sure they have pulled it off magnificently…it’s just that they have taken their music in a direction that does little for me. Give me the yelps, energy and restrained wildness of the best of Two Dancers any day. To my mind, the band need to go back to that album…and remember their name…when they come to make their next record.
Rob listened: I like Wild Beasts a lot and I like ‘Present Tense’ a lot too. I disagree with Tom when he yearns for more of the verve and abandon of ‘Two Dancers’ and perhaps even ‘Limbo Panto’. One of the things I cherish about where they have gone since then is their apparently deliberate progression towards the essence of what they have, their sound, their vision.
I’d love to hear another song as deliciously dangerous and whoopingly wild as ‘All The King’s Men’, and the joy of that track has hardly diminished with the years, but there are lots of bands trying to squeeze out the next earworm melody, the next 6 Music conquering hook. Wild Beasts are treading a different path. They seem to me to be hanging on to some sort of genome they are trying to crack, to perfect. Just as artists took the motorik beat in the 70’s and attempted to get to the root of it by driving it on and on, exploring its context, putting it next to contrasting elements in attempts to reveal or capture its pure essence, so it seems to me that Wild Beasts are driving towards their own purest form without knowing quite what that is. (As an aside, check out the Wikipedia page for Motorik. Some very dodgy references if you ask me…).
I’m also reminded of Jeff Buckley and the excitement I felt thinking about what he would go on to do in the years and decades which followed ‘Grace’. When ‘Sketches’ was posthumously released it brought home to me just what a powerful artist he could have gone on to be, precisely because he was heading off to explore what he could do with what he had, rather than trying to write a bigger, more crowd-pleasing version of ‘Last Goodbye’.
I’ve enjoyed listening to ‘Present Tense’ for many of the reasons Nick gives above. I don’t think it’s as complete a record as ‘Smother’. It seems to be a partial step towards something else, something similar but different, and that’s more than enough for me in this case.
Graham listened: I’ve enjoyed all the Wildbeasts I’ve heard at DRC and beyond. But never quite enough to think about going out and buying in to it in the days and weeks afterwards. Something about not being quite enough it in for me and my insensitivity to their subtlety.