On Alt-J are one of those bands that arrived on the world stage at exactly the right moment in history.
When they won the Mercury Prize with debut An Awesome Wave in 2012, “nerdy” music was experiencing somewhat of a golden moment. Radiohead were back, headlining Coachella, Bonnaroo, even touring Australia and a new generation fell in love with them. Animal Collective, Crystal Castles and Purity Ring released new albums. The public’s attention for music that felt smart but still driving was ripe for the picking, and alt-J took a slick, critically acclaimed bite.
Not nearly as inaccessible as some of their peers and influences, Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green strolled confidently on the more digestible side of the fence. There was weirdness, to be sure. But there was nothing on An Awesome Wave that would completely alienate a global, mainstream audience.
Not so with their new LP, RELAXER. This is a statement album that has been meticulously crafted to read: we are a Weird Band, we make Weird Music, and we’re not worried about mainstream appeal anymore. It’s a perfectly reasonable statement for alt-J to make, and for the most part it’s done with detached finesse.
RELAXER does vary in the success of its clearly very calculated approaches. Many decisions – the “girls from the pool” in opener 3WW, apparently alt-J’s girlfriends recorded from an actual pool – add a tantalisingly fleeting texture, like a tiny citrus aperitif dissolving on your tongue. Others seem more to obscure the record. The inclusion of a cover of House Of The Rising Sun: a traditional folk song many, many people already have covered. Though well-executed and technically fascinating – it was recorded with twenty classical guitarists all playing at once – it’s a strange decision for a tight eight-track LP.
At times alt-J’s grandiosity can feel a little much, but RELAXER has too strong a backbone to ever actually stop being an enjoyable listen.
In Cold Blood and Deadcrush both harken back to earlier works in their respective hard-driven and lush, synthy manners – equally bouncy, but pulling in different directions. The former builds to a brash, beeping climax that sustains for just a touch too long before an abrupt end; the latter drones and rolls through that suggestive inkiness that alt-J have built their name on.
Sonic ambience aside, it is a little jarring to hear a band reference sex and violence in close quarters as often as alt-J like to, and it’s interesting to note they have thus far largely escaped criticism of this – but mostly, unlike An Awesome Wave, when RELAXER is violent, it’s also silly. The snarling, Iggy Pop-cum-James Murphy Hit Me Like That Snare is so ridiculous that its expletives and references to “f***ing” (not the one you’re thinking of, actually) never threaten. Snare is a serviceable ’70s throwback to begin with, but it’s the theatricality of it all that makes this a clear standout.
Depending on whether you’re cynical or a hopeless romantic, Last Year is either a self-indulgent, boring retelling of a breakup, or a poignant narrative that finds universal truths in mundane recollections. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Marika Hackman’s honeyed vocals are the highlight. Pieader, described as a foundational song and a “secular piece of religious music” by the band, features a 30-piece string section and the boys choir that Unger-Hamilton used to be a member of. This is the song alt-J have tipped as the one you really need to see live, and it’s easy to hear why: the sense of swelling euphoria would make for the perfect closing number to a festival set.
No word on whether we’ll have a chance to witness that in Australia any time soon, though perhaps the shoutout to Tasmania on Adeline is a hint?
Read more: We Saw Alt-J In Munich