March 18, 2014

Wild Beasts in the Present Tense

For England's Wild Beasts pop music, class, and gender aren't easily separated. What makes this more than a simple pop cliche is the band's approach to the question of masculinity. The kind of masculinity that appears across their four albums is as diverse as it is arcane; instead  of attempting to embody an abstract ideal or essence, Wild Beasts' approach might better be described as an exploration what it means to be manly at different moments in time. Their latest release announces as much in its title, but, as always with Wild Beasts, what first appears as a naive truism masks a darker story.

Since their 2008 debut, Limbo, Panto, Wild Beasts have walked a compelling balance between hedonism, wit, and musical precision, all the while providing self-conscious caricatures of their own virility. Their fourth album, Present Tense, continues their trend towards more tightly wound pop productions, abandoning the cocksure sounds of other current British rock bands for the delicate textures of 80s pop and R&B; and while it doesn't surpass the high water mark of 2009's Two Dancers, Present Tense is a definite improvement over the spare, fragile Smother. As co-vocalist Hayden Thorpe put it in a recent interview, "there was a real purpose of stepping out of the ruins of Smother, which was a very bruised and defeated record in many ways." Where Limbo, Panto presented a compelling but disorganized tour of young libido, Smother followed the logic to its breaking point, losing listeners (like me) along the way. Unlike its predecessors, Present Tense is, despite its titular pun and garish cover art, a relaxed and spacious pop record that relies more on crystalline synths than the taut strings of a guitar.

Present Tense trades the darkest undertones of the Wild Beats' previous work for a more playful and ambiguous sendup of the present. "Wanderlust," their galloping opener takes its cue from King Lear,  giving the finger to wealth and the class groomed to possess it. "We're decadent beyond our means," taunts Thorpe, "They're solemn in their wealth, we're high in our poverty . . . With us the world feels voluptuous." As with other Wild Beasts records, the interplay between vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming -- a foppish falsetto and throaty baritone, respectively -- allows for the simultaneous appearance of different thematic registers: Thorpe's vocals prance through the clouds, while Fleming's are rooted to the earth. Along with their first single, "Sweet Spot," the best example of this, Present Tense's brief, glam-pop performance "A Simple Beautiful Truth," transitions perfectly from the album's pensive centrepiece, "Pregnant Pause." By this point, the aura sounds effortless: the R&B of Fleming's fluid bass finds its companion in a glittering 80s synth line, helping make good on the promise of "Sweet Spot," that "godly state," sings Thorpe, "Where the real and the dream may consummate." These fleeting moments appear to suggest the kind of bourgeois acceptance that the Wild Beasts, in until this point, had seemed to parody. But towards the album's end the narrative changes yet again in order to reveal these reproduced moments of pop perfection for the nostalgic constructions they are.

Unlike previous Wild Beasts releases, the romance on Present Tense seems to move beyond satire and jest to what might pass as honest enjoyment. On "Mecca" Thorpe builds on the existential embrace of "Wanderlust," describing history's collapse into a single moment of erotic love: "Cause all we want is to know the vivid moment / Yeah, how we feel now is felt by the Ancients." Similarly, the album closer, "Palace," finds Thorpe arriving again at that romantic moment, unguarded and able to achieve an intimate vantage: "In detail you are even more beautiful than from afar / I could learn you like the blinded would do, feeling their way through the dark." The catch to all this is that this kind of intimacy doesn't come without a lot of historical baggage. On "Past Perfect" Thorpe dismisses the possibility of a "perfect present," instead admitting to a present that is characterized by an irreducible tension. His explanation reads like a moralistic nursery rhyme: "Our hurt is older than our hands / It passed from monkey into man / Now tender hands do heal the hurt / Man did fuck up / and then he learnt." But the learning is not over. For the Wild Beasts of Present Tense, what counts as masculine cannot escape its own historical confusion or triumph over modern disillusionment. Here, in other words, is no simple resolution, but the end of a category that knows its time is up.

March 9, 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein and religion

A short video documentary produced by the BBC.

"Fire's Reflection" - Rainer Maria Rilke

Perhaps it's no more than the fire's reflection
on some piece of gleaming furniture
that the child remembers so much later
like a revelation.

And if in his later life, one day
wounds him like so many others,
it's because he mistook some risk
or other for a promise.

Let's not forget the music, either,
that soon had hauled him
toward absence complicated
by an overflowing heart....

Translated by A. Poulin