Fresh off their third studio release, Relaxer (out June 9 via Infectious Music /Atlantic Records), alt-J have always been a polarizing group. There are just as many who share an intense love for the band as there are those who feel utter disdain. Relaxer has been met with mixed reviews since its release, receiving a 4.5/10 from Pitchfork, yet high praise from NPR Music‘s Bob Boilen. The band ambitiously attempted to widen their scope of sound on this new record, but there’s a large gap between what was successful and what fell flat. The highs are beautiful, haunting, and unique. The lows, however, are boring.
The interest around alt-J largely has to do with their melding of British music styles, with influences ranging from pastoral folk to psychedelic rock – all fitting into the hazy, pentatonic bubble of alt-J’s sound, filled with oddities and references. 2012’s An Awesome Wave contained the radio hit “Breezeblocks,” which referenced Maurice Sendak’s book Where the While Things Are. Their 2014 album, This Is All Yours, felt like a fantastical journey, with the Japanese city Nara serving as the focal point.
Relaxer takes these influences a little more to heart, covering the folk classic “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as visiting some organ sounds that are reminiscent of ? & The Mysterians‘ “96 Tears” from 1966. However, what we’re really supposed to grasp from this album is unclear – song lyrics range from bizarre sexual experiences to simply repeating the book title How Green Was My Valley over and over again. alt-J’s sound has become grander in this record. The sounds are bigger, the arrangements are fuller, but something is missing. The album begins and ends strongly, but deeply sags in the middle. Perhaps they are embarking on a larger storyline that requires multiple projects to understand. We’ll have to wait for new music to discover that. In the meantime, we can listen to Relaxer – a little underwhelming, but pleasant nonetheless.
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Perhaps the strongest song on the record, “3WW” takes the listener through the tale of a “wayward lad” just looking for love. British folk singer Marika Hackman joins in the vocals on the song, which makes for a lovely addition to the voices of Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton. The song begins with a long instrumental. A quietly picked guitar line punctuates a low, pulsing, sub-bass line, and it feels like being dropped into deep water. Unger-Hamilton’s voice eventually comes in a cappella, beginning the story:
There was a wayward lad
Stepped out one morning
The ground to be his bed
The sky his awning
The narrative carries on in this way, and the song is a slow burn. There are moments where the band explodes into symphonic unison, but immediately comes back down to whisper the crux of the story: “I just want to love you in my own language.” This is by far my favorite track on the album, and it’s unfortunate that such a promising intro leads to a less-than-satisfactory full product.
In Cold Blood
Upon first listen to this song, I hated it. While it grew on me after a while, the song still is a glorified version of their 2014 hit, “Left Hand Free” – arguably a better song. Opening with Newman singing a binary code – “0 111 00 11” – and then launching into some kind of word painting about summer, the question rises: “What is this, honestly?”
Crying zeros and I’m hearing 111s
Cut my somersaults and my backflip
Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool summer
It’s not until the chorus that we are given the reason for the title: “…summer vibes killed in cold blood.” The occasional randomness of alt-J’s lyrics come out full force here, and as they fall back on la-la-la’s to fill the chorus, the effect makes for a song that didn’t seem to receive enough effort.
House of the Rising Sun
Seeing this title on the track list was exciting. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the biggest disappointment on the album. Taking a classic song and making it your own is cool – super cool, in fact – but alt-J took this one slightly too far. At first, the rumbling strings are haunting and mysterious. The listener is drawn in, anticipating an explosive performance of the song, a la Eric Burdon. It never gets there. The melody begins to shift away from what is familiar, as do the words. It felt a little like sacrilege, to be perfectly honest. Try again next time, alt-J.
Hit Me Like That Snare
‘Moon Shaped Pool’ plays in the velvet cell
Green neon sign reading “Welcome to Hell”
Leather slings fall like oxygen masks
We’re going down, fuck my life in half
Something striking about alt-J has been their ability to sound mature through their muddled and cryptic lyrics. However, this song takes a sharp left turn from that. I’m all for a band trying new things, but this felt like a bunch of high school boys writing lyrics about sex. And why’d they have to bring Radiohead into it?
This song is not memorable. Even as I write this, I’m struggling to remember what the song sounds like, even having just listened to it. While the choruses are catchy, with Newman’s sliding falsetto, the verses amble along in a way that make the song not really worth listening to. The lyrics are the sort of cryptic storyline that feel like nothing, even if you know what the story actually is.
Keepa, keepa, keepa, keep me damn down
Let it low
Let me know where you go (watch me now)
Papa, papa, papa
Get me down
Deep, deep down
Pablo, let me know
It feels a little bit like a cheap copy of some of their prior work, similar to the way “In Cold Blood” does. Ultimately, it’s the lowest point on the album in terms of inventiveness.
It’s here that the album takes another turn, but for good this time. In this song, the band returns to the sweet, dark, pastoral beauty that has made them so special in the past. This song centers around a woman named Adeline, who the speaker has a clear adoration for. Rolling acoustic guitars hold up the lofty melodies about this girl, loved from afar. About halfway through the song, the speaker tells us that Adeline is singing, and the lyrics become an old Irish song called “The Auld Triangle,” which fits into the haunting atmosphere – even though the song was originally a drinking song.
And the old triangle went jingle-jangle
All along the Royal Canal
My Adeline was swimming; sweet Adeline was singing
To the tune of the Royal Canal
You could imagine yourself in the dusky green hills of Ireland while listening to this song. It eventually opens into an echo chamber filled with drums and harmonies, and the speaker – who is actually a Tasmanian devil – wishes his Adeline well.
For its penultimate track, the album comes back down for this murky, low-fi ballad. There is an underwater quality to the song, with plenty of reverb, and a melancholy melody. The song moves through the months of the year, recounting what the speaker has lost throughout.
January came and took my heart away
February felt the same
March, my hugs became hold ons
April, I huffed like porridge on the boil
Morning May, I’m downwind from your shampoo
The harmonies are gorgeous and lush, and the song draws you in with its vagueness. The song is a beautiful, nostalgic track. Halfway through, Marika Hackman rejoins the fray, lifting it out of the depths – melodically, but definitely not thematically.
If it’s stones for your pockets, I’ve collected a few
To hold you down
To hold you down
Mississippi, come back to me
Oh, Mississippi, your coal-black sleep
She sings with airy longing, and a bassoon softly joins her. The remainder of the song sparkles tentatively, and acts as the perfect lead-in to the end of the album.
The first 20 seconds of the song “Pleader” is silence. We then hear what sounds like someone fumbling with a lock, some quiet choral voices, and a burbling orchestra. One moment later, an imposing synth bass line begins to spur the song onto something darker, and a woozy guitar begins picking in eerie melodic patterns. Hey instrumental is somehow reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and as disjointed as the rest of the album may be, this song somehow manages to pull it all together within the confines of this bizarre orchestra. At the halfway mark, the song explodes in joyful major chords, and Unger-Hamilton singing about Richard Llewellyn’s book, How Green Was My Valley:
How green, how green was my valley?
To be told of such hills
To be held in such spots
To behold such warmth
Call to arms these harmonies!
And in happy agony we sing
How green, how green was my valley?
The phrase “in happy agony” seems to sum up much of this record – there is a lot of darkness happening here, much of it sung in an oddly joyful manner. It’s a great ending to the album, and a clear sign that though some of this album flops, there are greener pastures ahead.
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