[Infectious Music / Atlantic Records]
Leeds indie-rock trio alt-J made a big splash in the alternative scene back in 2012 with their debut album, An Awesome Wave. The album received rave reviews and deservedly went on to win that year’s Mercury Prize and became platinum-selling in the UK. At the time, the newcomers were lauded for their highly original, experimental style, Joe Newman’s distinctive, cryptic vocals and a wide array of densely layered instrumentation at the forefront of their unique sound. An act like this hadn’t really been seen before.
2014’s sophomore album, This Is All Yours, while still a very good album, repeated the same trick somewhat but in a more subtle fashion. With the element of surprise now gone and the bar set so high, the standard fell ever so slightly short of its predecessor. With their recently released third LP, RELAXER, it feels very much the same way. That’s not to say that this record doesn’t have plenty of fine moments. It’s just a case of diminishing returns and it could be said that alt-J have unfortunately become victims of their own success.
Second single ‘In Cold Blood’ is up there with the very best material that the group has ever recorded. Originally written while still in college, the trio finally got around to finishing it and it sounds immense. A tale of a summer pool party gone wrong (“My pool, summer, summer, pool, summer vibes killed, In cold blood”), the song contains a menacing brass section, funereal synths and an absolutely killer chorus. The outro with its woozy keys and building horns is an exhilarating, punch-the-air finale.
The sombre ‘Adeline’ is starkly beautiful with some gorgeous harmonies. The heavily layered song tells a story of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with the titular woman as she swims. A band not afraid to borrow from other sources, the melody was taken off Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to A Thin Red Line, while ‘The Auld Triangle’ provides lyrics in the later verses as the devil wishes the woman well as he realises he cannot be with her.
Album closer ‘Pleader’ shows alt-J at their most ambitious. Part recorded in Ely Cathedral, the band is joined by the Ely Boys Choir, which keyboardist/backing vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton used to be part of. Opening sinisterly with piercing synths, acoustic guitar and swooping strings, it slowly builds before exploding into a more joyous, very British affair that wouldn’t sound out of place on the BBC’s Songs of Praise.
The supreme, snarling ‘Deadcrush’ has a fantastic electronic groove and some claustrophobic breathy loops. The bluesy ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ sees the band displaying a more straight forward dirty rock sound – not a million miles from ‘Left Hand Free’ off their second album but without the big chorus. Instead, there’s the rasping, antagonistic closing line: “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do”.
Lead single and album opener ‘3WW’ is undeniably pretty without really commanding attention. You could say nearly the exact same thing about the rework of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ – an old American folk song most famously covered by The Animals – extremely pleasing on the ear, exquisitely layered and harmonised but very samey. The album’s one real misstep is ‘Last Year’ – a plodding downbeat tune that takes way too long to get anywhere, the arrival of guest vocalist Marika Hackman midway through coming too late to save it.
Like all alt-J’s previous output, RELAXER is most certainly a grower and improves on each listen, the wonderful moments more than outweighing the less so. Coming in at a welcome 39 minutes and eight songs it doesn’t overstretch itself. But will it stand up to their greatest work in future? Probably not.