Wild Beasts initially came to be known as the band with a singer more operatic and vocally androgynous than Anthony Hegarty. Possessed of a particularly piercing falsetto, Hayden Thorpe did not shirk from presenting himself as a freakish curio on the small-town Northern England quartet’s 2008 debut Limbo, Panto, especially with singles like “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants,” which sounds exactly as purple as its title suggests.
But starting with their 2009 Mercury Prize-nominated successor Two Dancers, Wild Beasts have progressively streamlined their sound and tempered their quirks to great effect: The guitars no longer go all over the place merely because they can, and Thorpe has reigned in his warble. What’s left is an extraordinarily effective band that achieves far more with a whisper than a shriek.
While the thunder of their earlier records proved these guys possess the emotional and musical force to follow in Muse’s arena-rock shoes, their fourth album suggests they’d rather embrace minimalism alongside James Blake and the xx. Their quietist yet most fervid effort yet, Present Tense simmers with a passion that threatens to boil over at any moment, one that’s richly romantic yet clear-eyed in ways from which arty rock bands ordinarily shy.
The difference shows right away in opening track “Wanderlust.” “They’re solemn in their wealth/ We’re high in our poverty,” Thorpe sings as sampled voices swirl around him like a condemning choir. Instead of massed guitars, there’s a single malevolent bass, and the whole track seethes with anger: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck/ In your mother tongue, what’s the verb ‘to suck’?” he sings. He’s directing his fury at ambitious Brits who adopt Yank accents, but he does so with an angelic cry that makes his outrage uncanny.
Thorpe’s deeper, cooler counterpart, Tom Fleming, the one with the Orange Juice-y baritone, has also grown in confidence and understated strength, and they complement each other while alternating leads and harmony. While Thorpe flies heavenward, Fleming brings the ballast. For “Nature Boy,” he sings of a stud who emasculates dutiful men by stealing their women. On “Daughters,” he croons from the perspective of a panicked generation who ruins life for their bitter offspring.
There is a gentle luminescence here that offsets the band’s usual shadow, and on the self-descriptive “A Simple Beautiful Truth,” the pair swap chorus lines as softly staccato synths, guitar, and tom-toms dance across the surface. It is an unabashed love song, and much of the rest are ballads. But they’re hushed in the rich way of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” with producer Leo Abrahams — Brian Eno’s protégé — in the Martin Hannett role, coaxing ambient ghosts out of gadgets. “You remind me of the person I wanted to be/ Before I forgot,” Thorpe confides in the closing “Palace” with serene gratitude. Perhaps he remembers more than he knows.