Since their 2012 debut ‘An Awesome Wave’, alt-J have always managed to blend quirkiness with a wide mainstream appeal. Throughout the years, they have built an instantly recognizable personality and image which has earned them a huge following: the oddly unique voices, the mix of indie rock and electronics that somehow elicited unnecessary comparisons with Radiohead, the obscure lyrics or otherwise geeky references that made people think they must look like biology students. The band seems perfectly self-aware (and, as it turns out, perfectly normal) – when two YouTubers put out a viral video convincingly parodying how to make an alt-J song by repeating the phrase “put it in my butt” while eating rice cakes, the band humorously changed their avatar to a picture of the snack in question – but to some extent, they have embraced these labels, teasing the album by posting a binary code translating to ‘3WW’, the title of the lead single, while also referencing a Japanese PlayStation 1 game named LSD: Dream Emulator. Whether they have actually found an identity in the process is a different matter altogether, and the answer is probably no.
However, there is no doubt that they were something fresh and exciting, especially for a band that became this popular with such a genre-bending debut. The art rock group’s latest effort, ‘Relaxer’, is their most expansive record to date, but with a running time of only 39 minutes, it leaves a lot to be desired. The band is as inventive and unique as ever, even though the album is at times perplexingly questionable in substance.
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For anyone who criticized alt-J‘s sound for being dull, ‘Relaxer’ ironically offers many moments full of energy and quite a lot of punch. The single ‘In Cold Blood’ is one of the highlights for exactly that reason; the driving guitar riffs, which are determinedly present, are backed by ostentatious horns that broaden the scope of the song, while the effortlessly infectious “la la la” hook is contrasted with sinister undertones in the lyrics. It’s a pattern that reemerges in the album: in the livelier moments, catchiness is counteracted with something off-putting, or in the quieter moments, beauty with darkness. ‘Deadcrush’ is another one of those effective tracks; reminiscent of older alt-J with its electronic influences, the song is driven by a throbbing bassline and glossy percussion, while the cleverly written lyrics, literally about deceased historical figures that alt-J members have crushes on, are filled with wordplay and sarcasm (“Man Ray went cray cray over you/ Capturing but never captured,” Joe Newman sings about photographer Lee Miller). The sound fits the playfulness of the lyrics, embodying exactly what makes an alt-J song engaging and satisfyingly bizarre.
But it doesn’t always work well. alt-J have always found weird ways to sing about intercourse, but ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is their unlikely spin on rock n’ roll songs about sexual expression. One can only hope that the intention isn’t to evoke swagger or edginess, because the track is only acceptable as a pastiche parodying the howls of Led Zeppelin‘s Robert Plant and the cowbell of ‘Night Train’-era Guns n’ Roses. And still, it feels out of place in the context of the album. Covering ‘House of the Rising Sun’, The Animals‘ popular folk ballad, is another risk that didn’t quite pay off. Its beauty is unquestionable, as Leonard Cohen-esque fingerstyle guitar (featuring 20 classical guitars) interestingly creates an ambiance whereas the original’s focus is on a clear structure. Unfortunately, it drags on for too long. The lyrics also shift their attention to the alcoholic father rather than the son’s introspection (“And God, I know I’m one” becomes “And Lord, my father’s one”). And it’s in this shift away from the self where the song – and for some people, the band – loses its impact.
However, this isn’t the case for most of the other quieter, lushly arranged ballads. ‘3WW’ featuring Wolf Alice‘s Ellie Rowsell is the perfect opener, a piece of slow-moving folktronica that subtly builds and builds until the chorus hits you: “I just want to love you in my own language,” Newman sings, followed by a few simple piano notes capturing the moment in all its vulnerability. It makes a song that’s apparently about “the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s northeast coast” more emotionally touching than one would care to imagine. ‘Last Year’ also features a female singer, this time Marika Hackman, and like ‘3WW’, it manages to incorporate the clever and eccentric lyrics characteristic of the band while allowing for a deep level of emotional intimacy as the frontman sings about depression (“Augustus came and stabilised me with my father’s pain/ Relieving drug, diazepam”).
alt-J still have a distinctive voice and make music in their own language, and it draws you in instantly. The issue with a few tracks on ‘Relaxer’ is how long each song will keep you interested before you tune out, and overall, how underwhelming the experience of the album as a whole can be – a couple of less thought-out ideas have much more of an effect when the album is so short. Nevertheless, in comparison to other artists, the album is very enjoyable and quite impressive.