My god, what is going on? Has music collectively entered some kind of…Hot Tub Time MachineTM over the past year? The 80s revivalism in the air would almost be suffocating were it not for the fact that it’s all really, really good. Not six months ago MONEY were invoking the spirit of Morrissey, Bono and Echo & the Bunnymen on their debut release; now, St.Vincent is channelling David Byrne and Prince, whilst Wild Beasts, with their fourth album, summon forth Tears for Fears and Orchestral Manouevures in the Dark from wherever 80s pop stars go to die. Maybe The Horrors unmemorable but stylish Skying was onto something after all?
Or maybe everyone has just realised there’s something strangely, almost hypnotically, powerful about vintage keyboards and operatic vocals. They evoke some mystical – almost dreadful, almost wonderful – atmosphere that has a sense of place like no other, but also an ability to transfer to any time and sound like the future. On the ironically named Present Tense, Wild Beasts synthesize the already ubiquitous influences of their earlier works into their most cohesive, polished work yet.
From the moment those opening bars of Wanderlust phase in, it’s clear that Present Tense is a bigger, darker album than before. The swell of harmonies builds into a gothic cacophony of sound straight from 1985, whilst those distinctly repetitive, yet forceful, drum pounds hammer away a kinetic propulsion to support the sea of cold synths. It’s the sound of Smother lit up with neon, or Skying with something happening.
What seperates Wild Beasts from their forefathers is their ability to combine surprisingly subtle lyrics with complex, interesting sounds. It may all be rooted in 80s nostalgia, but it’s a varied tribute – from the Joy Division-esque Mecca to the moody, Numan-meets dubstep-meets Health Daughters.
There’s nothing quite as anthemic as Don’t You or Head Over Heels, but Wild Beasts have greater consistency of sound and a unique character to it. There’s something unquestionably new about Wild Beasts, even as they indulge in all the synths. The tone has changed somewhat from Smother, with the choral elements downplayed and Thorpe brought to the fore. This character means they can pull of slower tracks on Present Tense without becoming dull or just relying on sad sounding keyboards. Instead it’s just as lush as what came before, but filled with more subtle sounds – quietly rumbling drums, discordant violins, white noise hums.
Of course, it’s not really 80s without something slightly cheesy. You could say that’s Hayden Thorpe’s vocals, but, dramatic as they are, they’re also rich and grounded enough to pull it off (on album closer Palace there’s even some strange shades of Elbow to his voice); and their moodiness and gloomy lyrics bring them closer to Joy Division than Simple Minds. No, what’s cheesy about Present Tense is what Wild Beasts permit to be cheesy – fun pop indulgences like A Simple Beautiful Truth (truly one of the cheesiest songs I’ve heard in a long time, but kind of endearing for it), or that jangle-y guitar on Sweet Spot.
The difference with Sweet Spot is that, while it may deploy familiar tropes, it absolute nails them. It’s beautifully crafted pop, right down to –no, especially –that jangle-y guitar. And those vocal harmonies. And that keyboard bridge. And all of it. Sorry, Still Life, this is the best 80s song the 80s never had.
Present Tense is an album that goes beyond mere tribute. It’s a vintage album in every sense of the word, a blossoming of the already great Smother. It’s the 80s brought up to date, the sound of the past made undeniably present (almost like they, you know, changed it to Present Tense). It’s big, dramatic and fun, but without losing any of the subtleties in-between.
Wanderlust, Sweet Spot, Daughters