By John Whitaker
“Fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do.” The repeated outro to ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ sums up alt-J’s approach to their third album tragically well; no one could accuse them of selling out. Other reviews may argue that the band is still trying to find their identity; but this work is it. The inevitable result of consistently trying to make novelty do the work of musical ingenuity. While ‘Relaxer’ still contains much that gives it away as a typical alt-J offering (rich vocal harmonies, some bizarre lyrics, and an inability to stop adding more layers to hide a lack of real ideas), the experimentation with so many different sounds has left the album with a coherent identity; a mess of unconvincing and jilting changes in style that really let down the flashes of brilliance it undeniable contains.
For such a short album, an extraordinary amount of it is filler disguised as atmosphere building. Nearly every track begins with an overly long introduction, and the two minute build up of ‘3WW’, stripped of the interleaving percussive activity that sold the previous albums, sounds remarkably bare and thin. It is also accordingly unsuccessful at creating a feel for the song until it finally gives way to a sound they are good at. After the sudden heavy chorus and incongruous Latin guitar subside, high vocals and a ghostly piano come together to bring the heart of the song to life; an excellent reminder of the vulnerable storytelling alt-J write and perform so well. This doesn’t last long, and quickly fades back into nonsense, “that smell of sex, good like burning wood”.
‘In Cold Blood’ is a demonstration of how carelessly this album was made. Not only is its introduction an entirely disjoint style to ‘3WW’, preventing any smooth transition, but it then rapidly changes sound once more: gorgeous low brass jumps in with swinging saxes and trumpet stabs in an exciting, credible imitation of a James Bond theme. This briefly grabs your interest, but it is yet again quickly changed to a confused soundscape which attempts to combine this faux Big-Band with arpeggiators and a twanging bass guitar. Why bring in an engaging new sound just to ruin and abandon it?
The whole piece, and much of the album, sounds like a series of disconnected and insubstantial shiny baubles.
When compared with ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, where the band adopts a raucous attitude they simply can’t pull off and lyrics which are surely parody, you have to ask whether there is a point to this music. According to an interview with BBC Radio 1, the lyrics are “not massively deep”. Another interview on BBC Radio 6 reveals the instrumentals as unthinking decoration: “no one is quite sure where the key change came from”. All this, as well as hearing them say of ‘Deadcrush’, “we came up with a quick jam we luckily captured on our phones”, makes it clear why this all sounds so stilted; they have no idea what’s going on, so how could the listener?
What a perfect time to follow with a rendition of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Here, surely, they can remove the extraneous detail that is holding them back and convey some raw emotion with a folk masterpiece. They do not. They manage to turn a powerful standard into a dull, meandering disappointment. Not stripped away enough to be a soul searching man-and-his-guitar cover, the added verses have none of the effect of the original. This is real shame, because if they had scrapped the long instrumental breaks and unneeded introduction this could have been a decent cover. Sadly, like most of the album, it is simply incapable of holding interest over multiple listenings.
If you made it far enough to get to ‘Adeline’ you are in for a treat that will go some way to making up for what preceded it. A dark, foreboding, start and the entrance of ghostly vocals and softly driving guitar forecast a fusion of the band’s old habits with some welcome new ones; the lovely close, choral, harmonies and wobbling piano chords make a much needed return. The mournful lyrics don’t tread new ground, but are effortlessly haunting and effective. The vocal breaks and high, almost ethereal electronics sound like they could have come from a more sombre and controlled ‘An Awesome Wave’. Its slow build is a real pleasure to hear, but the succeeding sound is tainted by an all-too-familiar addition of unwarranted extra clutter; the percussion track and strings come to a fantastic crescendo, only for an unneeded vocal sample to overstay its welcome.
‘Last Year’ is a mixed listening experience. Its first half is ineffective to the point of comedy; a piece this dark can’t be taken seriously with lines like “I’m downwind of your shampoo”. The story of a suicidal man, the jewel of the album is the song at his funeral: a truly beautiful, moving and bittersweet combination of the returning vocal talent of Morika Hackman and an almost hopeful and upbeat acoustic accompaniment. The following immaculate and lyrical bassoon solo reinforces the remorseful and emotional second half of the track. Unlike the self-indulgent recorder interlude on ‘This Is All Yours’, this compliments the piece wonderfully and goes a long way to making ‘Last Year’ the best work on the album.
While initially sounding different, the same alt-J artistic tendencies run through the misnamed ‘Relaxer’ unfettered, for better or for worse. The polarity of styles highlights the extent of the experimentation within the album, but as it drunkenly stumbles from track to track it’s clear that it has neither the musical coherence nor interest to make it enjoyable. Worth listening to once or twice, if only for ‘Adeline’ and ‘Last Year’, but this won’t be finding a place on a list of anyone’s favourite albums.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons