Crisp production and a stunning vocal performance combine to make Wild Beasts’ fourth album Present Tense a treasure of a record. Spanning a spectrum of colour and mood, the songs boast distinctive lyrics and expertly crafted structures. The synth, bass, electric guitar and drums provide the perfect cradle for Hayden Thorpe’s rich melodies and unique voice.
In the same way that taste can be represented as a combination of the four flavours – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and ‘umami’ – his voice has a divine balance of power, breathiness, sweetness and depth, both in the higher register and the lower warbling. The latter is best illustrated by ‘Nature Boy’, where the dark instrumentation cycles round, backed with haunting vocal chords, as he sings; “so he works all day and he works all night//little fun for me and none for you”. The delivery on the word “none” could not be captured more perfectly – it’s a divine moment on the album – as with the high notes in the breakdown two thirds of the way through. Every word is meant, no syllable left unconsidered.
Another great example of such vocal performance, this time in a high register, is ‘Pregnant Pause’, affected and fragile – “sometimes you seem like a lost cause” – with gentle broken chords on the piano permeating the song. The pauses before the last word of the chorus are a nice touch, and the end trails off without completing the line. The strong hints of Massive Attack’s ‘Tear Drop’, partly due to interchangeable A-flat major and minor chords behind the vocal riff, make this one of my favourites on the album.
Sometimes, however, you can be so enchanted by the production that you forget all about the singing. The drum intro to ‘A Dog’s Life’ mesmerises the listener, before the chiming electric guitar and poignant vocal melody enter. The shift from just drums and vocals – “so throw the ball up into space/hold the phone up to its face” – into a cacophony of synth and bass, with a twirling electric guitar line panned to the right, is another highlight moment of the album.
The songs are all kept the perfect length, with no section overstaying its welcome. This, combined with the variety of moods, hook the listener from start to finish. I can only imagine that the songs would be as engaging live as they are on record; despite the quality of the mixing, the song-writing is self-sufficient, using Thorpe’s voice to its maximum effect.
Words: Ned Mortimer