In Brief: Alt-J has gone from being a groove-laden, psychedelic indie band occasionally interrupted by dull ballads, to a band largely focused on ballads, some of them lushly orchestrated and some of them rather dull, occasionally interrupted by jarring rockers. It’s not a good look.
I almost wasn’t going to review this one. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I had anything worthwhile to say about Alt-J at this point. I was pretty excited about the British band when I stumbled across their unique brand of beat-driven psychedelic indie rock on their debut An Awesome Wave, then I rapidly ended up eating my words when their follow-up This Is All Yours turned out to be an infuriatingly bloated dud of an album. Did I hate that album? There were just enough highlights that I had to keep re-evaluating my opinion of it, but I didn’t look forward to returning to it beyond my first listen. And that led to a sense of dread as their third album, Relaxer, loomed on the horizon almost half a year ago now. Sure, I figured I’d listen to it, but with only 8 tracks, most of them pretty downbeat, there was almost no margin for error. Was this gonna be one of those things where other critics would find brilliance in the slow-burning madness while I struggled to “get it” and threw up my hands in frustration? It almost seemed like we had another King of Limbs-type situation on our hands here, except that Radiohead album at least followed a solid decade of decent-to-great material from a band I was still learning to love. Alt-J seems to be on a reverse trajectory – I loved them at first, and despite how much I’ve tried to be patient with their follow-up efforts, I seem to lose interest more and more rapidly as time goes by. I must have listened to Relaxer maybe a handful of times when it was new, then I put it away after deciding I didn’t care about much of anything beyond its lead single. the span between listens rapidly dropped from days, to weeks, to months. I pulled it out again recently and thought, “Hey, maybe there are a couple other highlights on here after all”. But it’s still slow going. And that’s disconcerting on an album that seems like it’s meant to be a more focused response to a rather sprawling sophomore effort.
Now I don’t want to beat a dead horse where Radiohead is concerned. While it seems difficult to name any British indie band nowadays who isn’t influenced in some way by Radiohead, Alt-J is a very different band, who is in some ways more accessible and in other ways more inscrutable. Tinkering with rhythmic song structures and samples, and finding interesting ways to hammer home a fun groove without the heavy use of bass seemed to set them apart at the beginning. They branched out a little more in a “baroque” direction on their second album – though one could hear the seeds of it on their first. Now that their third has rolled around, it almost seems like they’re committed to finding the intersection between modest microbeats, acoustic balladeering, and classical composition. The quirky voice of Joe Newman is an especially odd fit for the more hushed space in which Relaxer spends most of its time. What’s ironic about this is that, because the title leads me to expect more of a “mood” album that I can out on and zone out to, it’s actually the rare loud moments that I find most distracting. On This Is All Yours, I was annoyed that they kept wandering off on these quiet little rabbit trails when a few songs demonstrated that they still had a gift for strong grooves or even straight-up raw rock energy. Here, the few rockier moments feel like they were dropped in from a completely different universe, as if the band suddenly got self-conscious about their own marketability. I’m not one to hate a left-field uptempo song just on principle – “Electioneering” is one of my all-time favorite Radiohead songs despite the moodier album it comes from, for example. But I just don’t feel like this album really starts to live up to its name until it gets to its back half. And then I go from being annoyed with it to struggling to even pay attention. This is why it took months to find the highlights, I guess.
As much as I like lyrics, and tend to enjoy picking them apart when the intended meaning of a song isn’t as readily apparent, I have to admit that these have never really been Alt-J’s strong suit, either. They way they write seems to be more stream-of-consciousness (and you can speculate on what substances might have influenced some of the creative process – they don’t exactly hide this aspect of their inspiration). And I don’t mind that, per se. being pleasantly puzzled by a song can be equally as entertaining to me as knowing exactly what it means and being totally on board with its message. But I can’t remember ever being all that inspired by the apparent meaning of an Alt-J song. For the most part, they’re just eccentric, sometimes a bit creepy, on rare occasions even a bit crass. The gentler nature of most of this album makes the crass-ness not as much of an issue, but on the one song where they decide to let loose in that department, they really let loose. Really careful listeners will probably pick out overarching themes and little Easter eggs linking the songs together, but for my part, I haven’t really noticed (or honestly cared to dig deep enough to find) a strong reason for these eight songs to exist together, as a complete body of work that adding or removing songs from would somehow compromise. It feels like a hodgepodge of ideas. Many of them are good ideas. A few of them even deliver on the promise of their good ideas. Two of them don’t even manage that – and two bad songs might be considered skippable filler on an album with more content, but here, it’s 25% of the album. I’m not saying including more songs would have fixed that. To me it seems indicative of a creative rut that resulted in a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” sort of mentality. In that case, you might as well throw more material at us in general. Odds are, more of it will stick.
I know it sounds like I’m being harsh, or perhaps misjudging the entire intent of this album. But bear in mind that I’ve come back after all these months and decided to review it because I wanted to give credit where it was due and say that a few of these songs were better than I had first realized. So while I may seem mostly indifferent toward the band at this point, this isn’t meant to be a total bash-fest. More like an expression of vague hope that maybe the band will find their way out of the doldrums should a fourth (and hopefully more consistent and immersive) album ever materialize.
The opening track, which is also the lead single I mentioned enjoying earlier, is unconventional in many ways. Previous Alt-J albums started with an intro track that was actually called “Intro”; this one cuts the intros and interludes and aims to give us nothing but self-contained songs. Previous Alt-J intro tracks were rather groove-heavy – this one establishes a memorable hook early on with its exotic guitar arpeggio and its quiet clicks and thumps, but it almost feels like it’s tiptoeing around, trying not to disturb someone sleeping in the next room. It’s a quiet start for Alt-J, that takes its sweet time to ruminate on its opening hook before getting to the meat of the song, and just when you think they’ve constructed a delicate, minimalist masterpiece with a classical bent to it behind the robotic beat, it swerves into darker, more unnerving territory by way of turning up the bass and the electronics without the live instrumentation having to get louder and obviously climactic. The vocal duties are split between three people here – keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton actually sings the first verse, Joe Newman takes most of the rest of it, and Ellie Roswell, lead singer of the band Wolf Alice, gets a verse as well. This seems to be a story about a “wayward lad” having his first amorous encounter and falling head over heels in love, only to realize it was just a casual hookup for the girl, and having to contemplate the weight of saying those “three worn words”, otherwise known as “I love you”, due to them being said so much that their meaning is too vague. This track piqued my curiosity right from the get-go despite its unhurried nature. The most prominent musical and lyrical elements of it easily carry the song, while closer listening reveals little sonic details – the crackling of a campfire, the giggling of a flirtatious young girl, even the diminutive little piano interlude that follows the tender chorus. It’s not at all what I expected from Alt-J, and it may be the best thing they’ve done since their debut.
2. In Cold Blood
“Zero one one one, zero zero one one.” The abrupt sound of Joe singing in binary code is a bit jarring after the calm opening of “3WW”, though given that the band first announced the release of “3WW” by teasing its title via binary code on social media, this is certainly intentional. This ramshackle tune, which remains upbeat due to its prominent electric guitars and keyboards, while shifting in and out of more syncopated rhythmic sections and layering a pretty strong horn section on top of its most climactic moments, is the kind of thing I’d like on either of Alt-J’s previous albums, and while I like it here as well, it doesn’t feel like a good fit for the overall vibe of Relaxer. I’m not even going to pretend to tell you I can make any headway with its bizarre lyrics that seem to involve drunkenness, debauchery, and murder at a pool party. With trippier songs like these, I feel like sometimes I enjoy them more when I understand them less. This song has one of the few uses of profanity in an Alt-J song when Joe sings the line “All above crowd around, so f*cking loud” in the second verse, though his enunciation tends to obscure what he’s actually singing a lot of the time, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed this the first few times through if Spotify hadn’t tagged it with the “explicit” label. It’s honestly mild compared to what’s coming a few tracks later, and it doesn’t significantly harm my enjoyment of the song – its status as a fish out of water is the only thing that really drags it down for me.
3. House of the Rising Sun
My positive statements about the first two tracks, compared with my overall rating of this album, can only mean one thing: This album peaks awfully early. It falls right off a cliff after the misleading buildup of “In Cold Blood”, since the band has decided to put a rather sparse and somber cover of a traditional folk song next. I’m not saying it’s bad for Alt-J to try more lush, acoustic numbers, but I felt that “Choice Kingdom” was a bit of a yawner on This Is All Yours, and even if I knew enough about the song they were covering here to have any real attachment to it, I’d be immediately turned off by Newman’s vocal delivery, which honestly sounds like he’s bored to tears. they tried the whole “understated cover” thing with their version of Bill Withers‘ “Lovely Day” that appeared as a hidden track on This Is All Yours, and while it was off-putting at first in comparison to the normally upbeat nature of that song, it grew to become my favorite song on that record. I can’t see that happening here. I’ll give them points for atmosphere – the organ-like keyboard sounds at the beginning give it a bit of a pastoral atmosphere, and the combination of the flowing acoustic guitars and classical instrumentation gives it a nice, serene atmosphere. Maddeningly, none of that can save a dull performance. And while I wouldn’t be able to tell you which verses Alt-J themselves decided to add to the song, it bugs me just on principle that they’d take a tune that is clearly a beloved classic to the people they expect to recognize it, give it such a half-hearted delivery, and then act like they’re somehow adding an important piece to the establish canon. Just… no. This doesn’t work on any level.
4. Hit Me Like That Snare
The nadir of the album is its most raucous, upbeat track, one which Alt-J purposefully designed to be rowdy and filthy. (And to have lots of cowbell.) “Left Hand Free” might have sounded a bit out of place on This Is All Yours, but it ain’t got nothing on this one. Here, the band oddly juxtaposes lewd sexual fantasies with uneasy family dynamics and (I think?) a car crash, which basically gives them the excuse to drop the f-bomb in both a startled/frightened context (“I’m going down, f*ck my life in half”), and in a more deliberately offensive context (the group sing-along at the end of the song, which loudly proclaims, “F*ck you, I’ll do what I want to do!” Oh, and there are some Radiohead references in there too – Newman name-checks the album A Moon Shaped Pool, for no apparent reason other than the fact that the riff he came up with kind of reminded him of their song “Decks Dark” from that album. (I don’t see the resemblance. Then again, I’m out of step with a lot of their fans for finding “Decks Dark” to be a rather bland song. Which is entirely different from my reasons for disliking what Alt-J has come up with here.) I can find humor in a band creatively rebelling against cultural norms as much as the next guy (at least, if the next guy isn’t part of the blue-nosed conservatives they’re flipping the bird to here), but I get rapidly diminishing returns from deliberate shock value that seems to set aside cleverness for the sake of pure audacity. Once we get to the line about a guy getting fisted by his family on the floor, I’ve had about all I can take. I’m even more creeped out by the little snippets of counting in Japanese, and the vocal samples of a woman saying something in Japanese that stutters like a broken record. Normally I’d find that sort of thing interesting and want to know what it translated to. (It’s not the first time Japanese culture has been referenced in their work – see the “Nara” trilogy from their previous album.) In this case, I don’t even dare. I get the icky feeling that someone’s culture is being fetishized, and that’s not cool.
The title of this song apparently refers to individual crushes that each of the band members have… on famous deceased women. Sounds a little creepy, but hey – if the rest of us can have “celebrity crushes” on people we know we’re not likely to meet, much less get together with, in real life, then I suppose it’s not unreasonable to feel infatuated with historical figures. Not that I would have deciphered the lyrics to mean this anyway. It’s just something the band felt the need to explain about what sounds to me like a lot of high-pitched gibberish set to a mildly sinister, mid-tempo beat, with some buzzing bass and weird vocal samples just to make things eerie. (That “Watch me now!” bit has got to be sampled from “Do You Love Me”… right?) I commented while reviewing one of the songs on An Awesome Wave that Joe Newman’s falsetto made him sound like he was doing an Adam Sandler bit, and that’s definitely in full effect here. I kinda liked this one for a while, and I still don’t hate it or anything, but it is a bit on the repetitive side, despite it being under four minutes long.
This one feels like a more straightforward (by Alt-J’s bizarre standards, anyway) tale of lost love. If Alt-J wants to reposition themselves as more of a quietly epic folk band, songs like this one might help to sell that image. The quiet beginning and slow build to a hair-raising climax are pretty well played here. Out of the few tracks on this album that I feel something strongly positive for, this is definitely the one that took me the longest to appreciate. It just sort of bled into the long, slow back half of the record for months, and then suddenly, just a few weeks ago, it hit me that I was missing out on something pretty darn good here. You can make what you will of the image of a woman swimming, haunted by a devil who waits her on the shore. (The story apparently takes place in Tasmania, for those who appreciate subtle references to Looney Tunes characters.) By their own admission, the band nicked a melody from Hans Zimmer‘s soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, resulting in Zimmer getting a writing credit even though the band didn’t work with him in the traditional sense. Even if the band seems to be basing some of their compositions on melody lines and riffs they had to borrow from other writers, they do sometimes build beautiful things out of them. The way that the strings gradually crescendo as the drums begin rapidly pounding away, matching the simple rhythm of the arpeggiated acoustic guitar that starts off the song but making it far more intense, is pretty thrilling. It might actually rival “Bloodflood” on my short list of favorite Alt-J slow song climaxes. When Joe and Gus begin to interweave vocal melody lines in the final buildup, singing “I wish you well, my Adeline” as the devil apparently learns to let go of the woman he’s been haunting, it’s a beautiful moment. And when those “I wish you well”s get overwhelmed by a shrill chorus of “YAAAA! YAAAA! YAAAA! YAAAA!”, I’m willing to bet some people will find that annoying, but for me there’s something fascinatingly haunting about it. I don’t fully understand what’s been lost here, but I certainly feel the sense of loss and despair.
7. Last Year
This song might be Relaxer‘s best example of an intriguing idea with poor execution. It’s a sparse acoustic song, completely stripped of the quirky elements that we can usually count on to inhabit even Alt-J’s quieter numbers, just sort of lazily being strummed as if Newman were pausing to make up the next bit of melody here and there as he went along. I’m sure it’s meant to feel spontaneous, but that and his dry vocal delivery do a huge disservice to a fascinating lyric that describes, month by month, the final year in a man’s life. I’m sure there’s a lot to pore over in every single line of lyrics, due to the way it breaks from a predictable verse/chorus structure to see this concept through. After he sings “December, you sang at my funeral”, the song changes voices, bringing in Marika Hackman to do exactly what the song says she’s doing. Confusingly, her side of the story gets lost in a metaphor about the Mississippi river that I’m not even going to try to unravel. There’s a genuinely beautiful moment where a French horn joins her lament, and bringing Joe back in at the end to sing with her is a classy move. But for the most part, I feel like this song is significantly undercooked. The power of it is lost in its bland stillness.
The last track, which almost ties “Adeline” for the longest track on the album at nearly six minutes, wastes a good 45 seconds of its runtime on barely audible background noise before it really gets started. I can’t say there’s nothing there, but given how impatient I was already getting with this album, you can see why this was yet another reason I was out of goodwill by this point on my first few trips through it. I’ll try not to hold that against the rest of the song, which is bizarre and beautiful and probably the most musically intricate thing Alt-J has done so far. They made heavy use of the classical elements here, shifting away from their usual 4/4 beat to a smooth 3/4, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be smooth at first due to how strange the arpeggiated guitar melody is that opens it up. As the band gradually brings in new elements, be it dark piano and bass or bright symphonic elements and an earnest boys’ choir, the song does a good job of keeping the listener guessing without making awkward transitions between its moods, or feeling like any of it’s being made up as they go along. It’s meticulously crafted without the band’s quirkiness getting lost in the classical instrumentation. The lyrics sound surprisingly awestruck and reverent, almost as if they’d been lifted from a poetry book from a century ago, and I can tell from the refrain “How green was my valley” that they’ve been inspired by the book of the same name. I have mixed feelings about literary references when they’re just dropped in there verbatim, and repeated so often that it’s like they’re saying, “See, guys? We read!” So while it’s a beautiful ending, I have mixed feelings about where Alt-J’s ideas end and the literature they’re cribbing from begins. I doubt this is going to be a problem for listeners who care more about the compositional side of such a song than they do the lyrics. I’m sure you’ll love this if that describes you. I like it, and I’m glad that the album ends on such a bright note even if it’s worlds away from what I would have expected the band to do. It’s only because the album has been such a disjointed mess that I’m not quite sure this joyous ending has really been earned. It’s kind of like when a TV show that has been dragging in its final seasons wraps up with a surprisingly poignant, tear-jerking finale. The last part of it does what it’s supposed to do, but if I the journey it took to get here had been more consistently compelling, I’d probably feel a bit more elation at the end of the story.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
In Cold Blood $1.25
House of the Rising Sun –$.25
Hit Me Like That Snare –$.75
Last Year $.25
Joe Newman: Lead vocals, guitars
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Keyboards, backing vocals
Thom Sonny Green: Drums
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