Hear me out on this one, folks. Do you ever have that experience where you listen to a song so intently you start to hear parts of it in isolation? You zone in so acutely that you can deconstruct the various layers, sometimes in revelatory fashion, other occasions serving to puncture the bubble of something greater than the sum of its parts. Where I most often struggle with this is the drum part. Often, you’ll find a charging beat beneath a rather languid vocal, the syllables elongated beautifully while the drummer grinds their teeth and bursts towards the finish line. It’s not uncommon in popular music and yet, there are occasions where, having spotted it, that realisation can ruin the song. It seems to come apart in your head, the two perfectly aligned moments now ever so slightly at odds. Now, if this is just me, I’ll begin to get concerned shortly, but either way it’s a phenomenon that has intrigued me over the years. The crafting process that arrives at that combination. The musical nous to take such an approach. Such was the case with ‘Wanderlust’, the lead track from the fourth album by Wild Beasts. It stutters out of the traps and swirls about for almost five minutes of understated synth burbling and coiled vocals, all accompanied by a stuttering drumbeat. At first it works just fine, and many months later I have got over the initial trauma, but a few listens in I really zoned in on the drum sounds around the three and a half minute mark and started to hear a sort of giddyup pattern that was completely at odds with what’s going on over the top of it. If you’re still sitting there thinking ‘this has literally never happened to me before’, then forgive me but it quite sincerely put me off the track for several months and diminished a not inconsiderable level of expectation surrounding its parent record. And thus my relationship with ‘Present Tense’ was set off on a curious path. Thankfully, I need little in the way of consolation.
There are those who’ll insist that these eleven songs marked a significant shift in the band’s sound, but I don’t entirely buy it. It sounds very much like a Wild Beasts record. In a good way. Ok, it doesn’t sound like ‘Limbo, Panto’, but then what does? Following on from ‘Smother’, it makes perfect sense. The smoother-edged, more controlled approach of their third outing is sensibly evolved here, most notably with the continued reduction in guitar parts. By swerving their usual producer, Richard Formby, there were inevitable changes, but things are finessed rather than torn up. The sound is certainly a little punchier – take the chiming majesty of ‘Sweet Spot’ or the quirk-pop chops of ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ as proof – but the devil is so very much in the detail on this album.
There is a percussive sound on ‘A Dog’s Life’, apparently conceived using a rippled snare, which sounds like a ball bouncing across the drum skin that is simply stunning. It neatly accompanies the lyric “throw the ball up into space” in a song which pays tribute to a pet prior to its expiration. The track is one of the album’s “aesthetic signposts,” as the band would have it, and it certainly captures the sense of perfectionism that pervades ‘Present Tense’. The album is almost wipe-clean in its production but that is by no means detrimental to its presence nor intended as a criticism. The pristine sound does not restrict the innovation and ambition of this quite particular band. Whether it’s the first time you’ve encountered them or the next step on an already cemented love affair, this a record which already feels curiously timeless.