In Brief: Coming from a band with such a strong sense of rhythm and so many fun quirks, This Is All Yours turns out to be a surprisingly disjointed and frustrating record to listen to. There’s being experimental and “out there”, and then there’s being languid and lifeless, and they spend too much of this record doing the latter while thinking they’re doing the former.
Well, it looks like the old sophomore slump has bitten another once-promising band. I probably should have seen it coming. Alt-J demonstrated so much promise on their debut An Awesome Wave, a record that pretty much had me at hello with their offbeat combination of chamber pop and dorm-bred psychedelic indie rock. But then along came the first single from their follow-up record, This Is All Yours, and it was built around a vocal sample from none other than Miley Cyrus. The very idea made me cringe, but I tried to keep an open mind, since the worst a little bit of Miley was bound to do in Alt-J’s world was add to the surreal nonsense they were already concocting. They weren’t doing it for shock value or anything.
Anyway, the full album arrived not long after that, and my first listen was massively disappointing, quite unlike my first trip through An Awesome Wave, which had its mellower moments that needed to grow on me, but to which I honestly never had a negative or even lukewarm reaction. “Maybe this one will be a grower”, I rationalized after going through the emotional whiplash of getting lost in one of their trademark clanging rhythms and then suddenly struggling to hear much of anything going on throughout a long swath of uncharacteristically quiet brooding. But no matter much I tried to pay attention to a lot of those calmer moments, they just didn’t have the same sort of texture or ambiance as tracks like the lovely “Bloodflood” and the trance-like “Taro” that closed out Wave so beautifully. A lot of them just felt like half-asleep acoustic noodling, with only a few tantalizing hints of the multi-instrumental deliciousness and choirboy vocal harmonies that had helped them to carve out such an identity for themselves. I’m not saying that a band like Alt-J should feel the pressure to be all rhythmic or all instrumental bombast, all the time. But even a lot of this record’s upbeat tunes feel out of place and pale in comparison to the best stuff from Wave. The ingredients are all there, but the execution feels a bit rote. The Miley Cyrus experiment is incredibly offbeat even in comparison to the rest of this stuff, but that doesn’t make it inherently better than most of it, I’m afraid.
Individual songs that don’t quite hit the mark could be forgiven, I suppose, but the real failing of This Is All Yours lies in its pacing. With little rhyme or reason, songs with sharply conflicting moods butt right up against each other, and the obscure lyrics often suggest some sort of continuity between several tracks, and even a few of the tracks from their previous album. I like hearing those little hints that there’s a larger story being told, but since I can never make heads or tails of Alt-J’s lyrics to begin with, those little Easter eggs aren’t much of a selling point. A band aiming for a continuous listening experience would find a better way to segue between the quiet meanderings and the boisterous percussion breakdowns – and you could hear them skillfully dismantling lively jams only to build them back up again on some of Wave‘s more adventurous cuts. I can only guess that the band was savvy enough to not want to repeat the template for that album, plus they were in a different headspace after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury earlier this year, who apparently contributed more to the creative energy of that first album than I had realized. There’s trying to be different from your previous sound because you’ve found exciting new avenues for your band to explore, and then there’s being contrary just because you feel like the critics expect it of you. I’m cynical enough to think This Is All Yours might be guilty of the latter on several occasions. That’s not to say that the entire thing is a wash – I think there might be enough interesting cuts on it to warrant a very meager recommendation to the more patient listeners among you. But when the album’s best moment is an offbeat cover of an old R&B song squirreled away in the “hidden track” slot at its very end, you know something’s gone horribly wrong in the creative process. I can’t say that I’ll be pulling this one out for repeated listens nearly as often as its predecessor.
The beginning of the album seems to pick up right where the band left off, building a hypnotic loop out of a repetitive “la-la-la” vocal that ping-pong back and forth between octave, and a trashy (in a good way) percussion groove. As in the previous album’s intro track, Joe Newman‘s vocals are highly distorted, which is probably just as well when you realize what he’s singing: “Escher wanna draw sh*t/I pop clips, b*tch/I draw my piece to my hip”. Apparently this is a riff on a much filthier Wu-Tang Clan lyric, so I guess I should be grateful for the rewrite. If I imagine that this thing has no words, it’s a beautiful and strange piece that oughta get crowds salivating for whatever’s coming next at the beginning of one of their live shows. It probably goes on for a bit too long for an intro track, but since it’s a totally wasted segue into the track after it, I’m fine with enjoying the fun little groove while it lasts.
2. Arrival in Nara
A lot of my impatience with this album during my first several listens can be traced back to this hushed acoustic track, which is meant to be the first of a three-part song cycle, but which to me just feels like an unnecessary slamming of the brakes, a 100% out-of-place experiment that might be tolerable much deeper in the album, but that is absolutely not the kind of thing you want to follow up a solid intro with. I briefly mentioned when reviewing An Awesome Wave that it made little sense to have an intro right before an interlude, but at least “Ripe & Ruin” was an interlude, and a short and entertaining one at that. This one just drones on in solemn choirboy tones about some girl drowning. It does little to set us up for the song that follows it, and even less to hold my interest. tracks that are just there to introduce other tracks should not be upwards of four minutes long, unless you’re a really ambitious prog rock act with the musical chops to make the pre-show consistently entertaining.
The sound of a buzzing fly marks the transition into what starts off as another very hushed track. It’s only really that way for the first verse or so, and it needs to have the feeling of entering into a sacred space, since the bell that can be heard ringing in the background is meant to reference a shrine in the Japanese city of Nara, which the song is of course named after. Not that it does a terribly good job of exploring its namesake, since the focus of the song seems to be a romance between two gay men, which is considered taboo in places the song names such as Russia, and the (apparently fictitious) town of Bovay, Alabama, which would probably be a very conservative place if it existed, but – Aah-OOH-Ga! – it’s not in Japan. Why name a song after a place if you’re just going to abandon the idea and start singing about other places? Now don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against the apparent political aims of the song, and I actually do enjoy the relaxed groove and the slow, layered, “Hallelujah” refrain once the song gets going. The band clearly wanted this song to be a centerpiece of their new album – why else would they compose two other tracks intended to bookend it? But the good song in the middle is hurt by a weak set-up and a lack of focus in a lyric that I’m sure they hoped we would find compelling.
4. Every Other Freckle
We won’t actually get to the third part of the “Nara” trilogy until the end of the album, but for now that means we’re finally getting back to the antics Alt-J first won us over with, so I’m cool with that. The unhinged obsessiveness of “Breezeblocks” is back for another round, though this time it seems to be less about expressing some twisted sort of love by kidnapping someone, and more about wanting to be present in every little mundane detail of their existence. I can’t say that Newman has written brilliant nonsense here, but at least it’s entertaining nonsense: “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a bean bag/Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet”, and so forth. Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton more than pulls his weight on backing vocals here, fitting in all the little lyrical asides that Newman himself can’t squeeze between those dense lyrics. Thom Green lays down another delightful ramshackle rhythm, and when you throw in some playful “Hey!”s and little bits of sampled instrumentation, you’ve got an unconventional but memorable single on your hands.
5. Left Hand Free
Speaking of singles… this one almost seems to put an Alt-J spin on the early days of rock-n-roll, combining sort of grimy guitar riff with a repetitive, kinda-bluesy melody, and one of the album’s most obvious and easily likeable chorus hooks. By the band’s own admission, it’s “the least Alt-J” out of all their songs, and unfortunately this admission led some fans to believe that they were, shall we say, “persuaded” to go back into the studio and record this one due to the record not having a marketable single. I’m sure the label didn’t mind the more conventional approach, but the band has fully owned this one as their own idea, just wanting to have fun with some of the basic cliches of rock & roll. The goofy lyrics (which I’m guessing are an announcement to a fellow free agent that I’ve got no ring and you’ve got no ring, so let’s have some fun and not take it too seriously, if ya catch my drift) and the metallic clinks and clunks of the drum kit are pure Alt-J, even in this more easily digestible format. If it had shown up on An Awesome Wave, this honestly might have been one of the weaker cuts, but given what else I’ve got to work with on this album, this one sounds like a stone cold classic by comparison.
6. Garden of England
The only true interlude track on the album (whose title comes with a symbol just like the ones that represented the three interludes on the last album’s track listing) is just a minute of medieval-sounding flute music. I don’t mind the sudden aural trip back to Sherwood Forest, but it has jack crap to do with the tracks on either side of it.
7. Choice Kingdom
The sticklers who have actually listened carefully to this album will be quick to point out that this song’s refrain contains the words “Rule Britannia”, and therefore it’s a reference to England, which means that “Garden of England” does have something to do with it, so there, ya dummy! Fair enough. Musically, I still contend that the flutes are out of place and add nothing to the album other than a brief distraction from its thoroughly illogical layout. If this track wanted to actually pick up that beautiful little melody and run with it, I’d be all ears, but instead all we get is the nervous hovering of an electric guitar that sounds like it’s being lightly tapped in the corner of the next room, while Joe mumbles one syllable of lyrics every bar and does absolutely zip to get me interested in the song. The band does manage to work their vocal magic in the second half of the song, which wrings some beauty out of the restraint, but as a whole, this track still seems like more of an echo of something far more interesting that we’ll never get to hear, than a full-fledged song in its own right. I tend to forget it’s even there.
8. Hunger of the Pine
So this is the one that got them talking. Even if you don’t know much about Alt-J, as long as you’re vaguely interested in alternative an indie music enough to read up on what’s happening in either genre, you probably stumbled across a blog or article at some point mentioning this experiment, in which the grand marquee headline is the participation of Miley Cyrus. Well, not really participation per se… her voice appears in the form of a vocal sample taken from her track “4×4”, and the band got her permission to do this after finding out that they were each other’s mutual fans. (Miley had apparently been using a snippet of “Fitzpleasure” for some purpose in her live shows, which makes total sense when you remember the lyric “In your snatch fits pleasure”… of course Miley would be all over it.) Until that vocal sample shows up partway through this song, it seems like a subdued but somewhat daring flirtation with electronic music, as a one-note keyboard pulse gently guides the rhythm of the song like a beacon through murky waters. Newman’s lyrics are actually pretty interesting here, as he describes the uneasiness of lying restlessly beside someone at night and not being quite sure if she’s really letting him in or if the intimacy they share is just a facade. His syncopated delivery pulls off a neat trick, convincing you that the song’s meter is a swaying 6/8, an illusion which the finger-picked guitar maintains, but then a stilted drum pattern arrives at the same time as that dreaded Miley sample – “I’m a female rebel!”, and it jars the song into 4/4. At first I didn’t like this at all. gradually, I began to appreciate the rhythmic bait-and-switch, since in a subtle way, Alt-J ends up maintaining a sort of polyrhythm throughout the rest of the song, bringing in horns and other unusual textures to make the track as alienating as it is fascinating. But I still think Miley’s presence here is gratuitous. Her words do nothing to illuminate any further meaning in the song, and it’s more like a happy accident occurred in the studio and they decided to throw it in just to keep us on our toes. I made the mistake of actually listening to “4×4” just to see if it provided any context, and it told me absolutely nothing aside from the obvious: Miley’s a bad girl and wants you to know how rebellious she can be. I hate that she even has to qualify that she’s a female rebel, as if all rebels other than her are male. It just smacks of ignorance, and while that’s more of a problem with a song Miley wrote that is awful for several other reasons, it carries over into Alt-J’s song simply because that’s the line they chose to sample. The song would be much stronger with that sample removed and absolutely no other changes made.
9. Warm Foothills
As far as experiments that are heavy on vocal samples go, this one doesn’t scream for attention like “Pine” did, but it’s unique in its own gentle way. The finger-picked stringed instruments suggest a lush blend of folk and classical sensibilities, but there’s a bit of electronic haze and sampled drums, subtly propelling the song along, giving it the feeling of a warm spring morning, with birds and insects fluttering about in the tall grass. The vocal samples this time come from Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, and several female vocalists whose names I don’t recognize, and it sounds like each one of them recorded their own take in which they sung the entire song by themselves, and then Alt-J spliced those vocal takes together, so that no two words in a row were being sung by the same person. The effect is a bit disorienting, but it’s an interesting new way for Alt-J to express their pscyhedelic side, and the lyrics are just abstract enough for this to sort of make sense. the song appears to be an ode to the hills and curves of a lover’s body, and unlike “Every Other Freckle”, in which they were being intentionally lustful and sleazy, here they make it sound like each dive from those peaks and each slide down those warm dunes is nothing less than an act of worship. I give this album a lot of flak for being too mellow, but this is definitely one case where got the low-key, meditative stuff right.
10. The Gospel of John Hurt
I didn’t know what to make of this one for quite a while. At over five minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks on the album, and it almost feels like two songs spliced together. In the first half, its exotic keyboard melody from the intro (which is rather jarring since it starts with keyboard and vocals at exactly the same moment, as if segueing in from some other track that didn’t make the final cut) is beautifully matched by brooding guitar, as Joe sings almost in monotone about feeling like an outcast, an alien, an L-shaped Tetris piece that doesn’t fit anywhere. He proclaims that he’s “Coming out of the woodwork/Just like John Hurt“, which is apparently a reference to the actor’s rather gory death scene in the movie Alien. Midway through the song, the band slows down the rhythm – which would normally be a cardinal sin once you’ve got such a pleasant groove going, but they actually build it up to a rather stunning climax that paradoxically seems faster and more intense than the original rhythm of the song, before finally coming to a complete stop and then bringing things full-circle by bringing back the keyboard melody from the intro. The vocal harmonies on this songs chorus are once again quite well done, especially when the percussion section really comes alive in the second half, and I can’t help but feel that if lower-key tracks like these that “sneak up on you” were the exceptions to the rule on an album that flowed better overall, they’d be deserving standouts rather than odd asides completely divorced from their surroundings.
Well, back to the bull. I’ve had about all I can take of Newman quietly mumbling over vague acoustic guitar chords at this point, and just about the only lyrics that stand out to me in this dull dead stop of a song are the chorus, which asks, “Are you a pusher or are you a puller?” There’s something more profound in there about a man needing the love of a woman to have any motivation, but the meaning is mostly buried beneath a weak hook that strikes me as too clever by half. Not much else goes on here except for a faintly pretty piano melody which, to the band’s credit, provides a reasonably good segue into the next song.
12. Bloodflood Pt. II
Only a few seconds in, that quiet piano melody takes a hard turn as it gets crunched by a slow, deep, meditative drum sequence. The original “Bloodflood” was an understated moment on An Awesome Wave that ended up being one of my very favorite tracks on the album, so I was thrilled at the notion of a sequel, but after hearing this one and its hazy-at-best connections to the musical ideas that made the original work so well, I was rather “meh” about it at first. It’s grown on me. It takes a little longer to get going than its forebearer, but there’s a lovely horn section and a dawning sense of familiarity as those old, bizarre phrases like “Dead in the middle of the C-O-double-M-O-N” and “A flood of blood to the heart” are reprised. The layered vocal buildup at the end isn’t quite as powerful as it was in Part 1, but it follows a similar template, and it’s to Newman’s credit that I haven’t once mentioned what an acquired taste his voice can be up to this point. Maybe it’s due to the largely slower material, but none of his performances on this album feel like he’s just putting on an affectation for the sake of being weird, which was one critique I had about songs such as “Fitzpleasure” and “Dissolve Me” that I otherwise enjoyed on that other album that I keep telling you guys was better than this one.
13. Leaving Nara
Here, the “Nara” trilogy is finally concluded, as is the album. This is basically two minutes of extra vocalizing on the “Bovay, Alabama” hook with other callbacks to lyrical ideas from the main “Nara” song. It’s vaguely pretty. Much like the album’s intro track, it launches into a bit of excess rhythmic noodling at the end that doesn’t really need to be there. I’m not really sure this reprise was necessary at all, but even if it’s as geographically confused as its parent song, it’s not unpleasant to listen to.
14. Lovely Day
Technically this is a hidden track buried a good 10 minutes or so past the end of “Leaving Nara”. Why Alt-J still thinks hidden tracks are cool in the age of digital music, where these things are actually listed and sold separately, and only serve to annoy those of us who still buy actual CDs and have all of that unnecessary silence to skip past, is beyond me. Despite that, I’m glad that they decided to give an oldie the “out-of-genre-experience” treatment, because this subdued cover of the Bill Withers classic is quite different from what I would have expected if you had told me they’d be covering this song, and for once they’re sidestepping my expectations in a good way. Truth be told, when I listened to this for the first time, not realizing it was a cover, those lyrics that have been familiar to me for 20 years now (thanks to the R&B/Gospel group Out of Eden, who covered it in the 90s when I was brand new to most forms of popular music in general) actually slipped right by my ears, since I was so taken by the fluttery synthesizers and gentle guitar, lulling me into a false sense of security as they ambled along in gently syncopated time. “When I wake up in the morning, love/And the sunlight hurts my eyes…” Such a distinctive lyric. How did I ever fail to catch that this was what he was singing? “Then I look at you/And the world’s alright with me.” That’s when it clicked for me. Then along came the very same trick that “Hunger of the Pine” pulled on us – the sudden switch to 4/4 and half the band intentionally missing the memo, creating an engrossing polyrhythm to serve as the backdrop for the song’s chorus. There’s a sense in which Alt-J’s oddball rhythm section makes them a good candidate to revive an old R&B song like this, and their take on it makes sure to include one of their trademark beat-on-weird-stuff rhythms, but the real genius of it is how they manage to preserve the bright, optimistic atmosphere of the original while taking a decidedly minimalist approach. It helps that Withers’ original melody (which is preserved for the most part, even if the echoing “Lovely Day”s in the chorus are absent) is preserved – that’s a killer chord progression that would speak to my soul in just about an decade. I feel like I’m short-changing Alt-J by saying that this is the strongest track on the album, but… come on guys, make a stronger album next time and then I won’t take the easy way out by gravitating to the song I already knew!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Arrival in Nara –$.25
Every Other Freckle $1.25
Left Hand Free $1.25
Garden of England $.25
Choice Kingdom $.50
Hunger of the Pine $.50
Warm Foothills $1.25
The Gospel of John Hurt $1.25
Bloodflood Pt. 2 $1.25
Leaving Nara $.25
Lovely Day $1.50
Joe Newman: Lead vocals, guitars
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Keyboards, backing vocals
Thom Green: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: