Wild Beastsare a band who could, if they were the types to settle, claim to have everything they ever wanted. Acclaim from all sides, a record deal that gives them as much time as they need, fans who wait on their every word. Then again, praise doesn’t tend to translate. It rarely spurs bands on to a next step, a higher calling. It took an outside view and a big look back on a divisive debut record to get Wild Beasts going again.
Third album ‘Smother’ is a wash of warm synths. The opposite, then, of first work ‘Limbo, Panto’, which still stands out as a wicked work, a divisive record that offended as many as it impressed. “I don’t think there are more bizarre and audacious debut records than ours,” claims champion of falsetto Hayden Thorpe, speaking almost six years on from its release. Back then Hayden purred and growled behind a microphone. He was a possessed terror, a night lurker emphasising the wild side of his band’s name.
For all of ‘Smother’’s soothing, smart exactitude, something felt amiss. Wild Beasts had, ironically, shunned their wild, beast-like brilliance. It hadn’t bypassed them or fallen under the collective radar. They’d intentionally removed all aspects of ‘Limbo, Panto’ because it was something, in their words, that they were “running from.”
Now it’s back. Rearing its head, showing its teeth, the “gang mentality” of their debut returns. On ‘Present Tense’, the spitting growl doesn’t return, but the thinking behind this venom most definitely does. Wild Beasts have decided to embrace their divisive side. “We had to be able to shock and surprise and wrongfoot still, because if it didn’t do that, ultimately what’s the point?”
With ‘Sometimes we’re only one hipster handclap away from being very today.’ risk comes the inevitable doubt. “More than ever,” Hayden says, “I personally went through a stage thinking people were going to fucking hate this.” At the first differences between the new album and those previous are pretty subtle. Thorpe’s joined by Tom Fleming in vocal duties, falsetto clashing with boldly bellowed statements. It’s still loved up, a record obsessed with sex. The same people are behind it - their perspective has changed, is all. There might even be - whisper it - signs that the band have something to say politically.
Tom dismisses the idea that the record’s about a “revolution”, saying “there’s a lot of gum flapping talk about it in the press.” But the newly sharpened bite has to have come from somewhere. “We’re talking about the chaos that will come if things continue,” continues Tom. He doesn’t strictly specify what these “things” are, but as the record progresses the themes begin to peer out.
‘Daughter’ talks about younger generations “sharpening their blades”, while closer ‘Palace’ basks in a new accumulation of wealth. “This is a palace and that was a squat,” sings Hayden, in a seemingly happy but completely twisted end to the record. It’s not 100% clear what the message is - “we sit down to make an artistic statement and it ends up being a pop record,” admits Tom - but there’s a sting to the tail, and it’s exciting.
Opener ‘Wanderlust’ doesn’t waste a second in planting its first punch. The synths snarl, the scene is set. For the first time on a record, Wild Beasts swear, which is something. Hayden plants an intentional curveball by repeating the mantra, “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.” A lot of their lyrics stand out in the first place, but this one feels like a statement. “Someone actually said that line to Tom once,” says Hayden. “I remember it being the most obnoxious, horrible thing I’d ever heard anyone say. And so I asked myself, ‘What’s the most crushing thing I could say at this point?’ It slotted in quite nicely.”
As it stands, Wild Beasts continue to declare themselves a pop group. Political or otherwise, a song like ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ is as clear, precise and melodic as they come. In the studio, producer Leo Abrahams was making “emotion graphs” for each song, pin-pointing when things should rise, calm down, stir into motion. It sounds ridiculous, but then “how else do you talk about it?” Tom claims. Working off instincts, the four of them claim to feel more of a unit than ever. But that didn’t stop the actual recording of ‘Present Tense’ from skewing their intentions. “It’s a factory element. You put in these raw materials and something completely different comes out the other side,” jokes Hayden.
One thing on the band’s mind was a desire to avoid a cultural zeitgeist. Nothing could have been less cool than ‘Limbo, Panto’, when it first came out. Acclaim is a double-edged sword, they admit. Hayden puts it in perspective by saying: “This was the danger and this was the thrill, because sometimes we’re only one hipster handclap away from it being very today.”
Citing Frank Ocean as an influence - “He changed things in a sense. It’s a fragmented record” - they claim that there’s a new “acceptance of mess”, stating that “things don’t have to be so concise.” They even dive into ‘vaporwave’, bigging up Oneohtrix Point Never as an influence. Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland, too. How any of this fits into ‘Present Tense’ is anyone’s guess, but Hayden asserts that “you don’t want to be chasing the gravy train” when writing a record. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than a Wild Beasts record that was trying to slot into what’s current.”
The album still very much belongs to them. Anyone who’s been raised on their records will have gotten accustomed to the sheer audacity of what they do, but to a newcomer it’ll come off like a strange, challenging pop record. “It could be very ridiculous if it’s not done right,” Hayden says, essentially summing up the risk of any Wild Beasts song. “I think we could have made a far more abstract and leftfield longplayer than we have but I think the adventure and the distilling what we do into an attempt at pop songs felt more adventurous and dangerous.”
The wild side comes storming back in. Any temptation to settle has been well and truly shunned. Tom admits that “you can’t pretend to be 21 anymore but at the same time you can’t be 40,” referring to the lure of becoming a more ‘mature’ band, but Wild Beasts aren’t growing up anytime soon. They’re mere cubs, even if they’ve just sped past their 10th year together as a pack. “Hopefully when you look back on a - horrible word - career, you see the thought process,” says Tom. “Everything we do is both a learning process and also a reaction to what we’ve done before.” If ‘Smother’ and second album ‘Two Dancers’ swept aside any notion of extreme, ‘Present Tense’ sees them returning to their daring roots with fire in their bellies, justifying why they still exist and remain one of the UK’s most vital bands.
Wild Beasts’ new album ‘Present Tense’ will be released on 24th February via Domino.