The eclectic, esoteric and generally eccentric attitude towards pop and rock music employed by indietronica sensations alt-J has secured the English trio a place as one of mainstream music’s most commercially successful oddities. Mixing elements from rock and pop music’s kookiest crevices with styles such as indie, folk and electronic music, alt-J’s sound, much like the artwork of their first two albums, is colourful, sometimes kaleidoscopic, but also rather chaotic, in a way that has seen mixed reactions from critics. Much like fellow folktronica powerhouse Bon Iver, alt-J often pursue a deliberately fragmented compositional approach and explore dualities in a way that can make their music exceptionally inaccessible for a pop group, but there has often been reason behind the chaos, particularly on the band’s debut, 2012’s An Awesome Wave. As dizzying and erratic as the album can be at times, the outfit’s finely-tuned ear for sweet sounds, memorable melodies and creative compositional concepts firmly rooted their sometimes scatterbrained stylings into a nevertheless consistent sound that is often as mind-boggling as it is mindlessly playful. alt-J’s sophomore LP, This Is All Yours, sees many of the motifs established on An Awesome Wave reworked into a style that is in part more subtle, but also more obtuse, arguably in a way that gave the group even less room to translate many of the interesting ideas that can be found after scratching away at the record’s surface. Indeed, it seemed that doubling-down on their idiosyncrasy didn’t necessarily play to the strengths of the band’s artistic approach to indie music, so it would appear that the trio’s newest album, RELAXER, which is undoubtedly their most scattered and, at times, disorientating so far in their career, would see this issue amplified even further. Needless to say, alt-J’s latest undertaking is all over the place, both stylistically and compositionally, and this is likely exacerbated by the album’s brevity, with its eight tracks spanning across just under 40 minutes, compared to the 49- and 65-minute durations of An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours respectively. With so many outlandish and sometimes crazy elements crammed into such a comparatively short runtime, RELAXER can certainly be quite the rollercoaster of a record, with there being no shortage of left-hooks to continuously batter the listener with some new, strange and quirky ideas. Undoubtedly, RELAXER is the most challenging and patience-testing endeavour from alt-J thus far. However, the more time the listener takes to digest the album and sift past its weird and whimsical exterior, the more RELAXER starts to take shape into a extraordinary expression of compelling and charismatic creativity. Unlike An Awesome Wave, alt-J’s newest full-length effort is surely hindered by its intentionally messy structure more than it is enhanced, but that’s not to say that it’s opaque to the point of revealing few of its unequivocally strong themes, as was the case with certain points across This Is All Yours. Overall, even considering all of its seemingly aimless twists and turns, RELAXER is nonetheless effective when it comes to conveying alt-J’s off-the-wall artistry.
Most definitely, the strongest moments from RELAXER, as much as they may meander, are nevertheless anchored in a solid, if sometimes ambiguous, underlying theme that provides a sense of overall cohesion and focus amidst the mess. This is firmly established by the album’s opener and lead single, 3WW, which stands not only as alt-J’s most devoted folk tune in their discography, but also as amongst their most mature, polished and tasteful tracks overall. In applying the aesthetic of a traditional folk song into their usual, off-kilter attitude towards structuring songs, the trio crafts a piece that is admirably elegant, whilst playing to the same territory as alt-J’s well-established, unconventional sound. The traditional English lilt of frontman Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s crooning, not to mention the classic gender dynamic brought into the fold by the guest vocal appearance from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, atop the bright, twangy acoustic guitar licks, makes for a composition that is unequivocally a conventional folk tune at its roots, despite the subtle electronics being firmly ingrained into the cut. This is perhaps the great success of 3WW, however, in that, from its very first breaths, the booming bass drone and bubbly synth patch that accompany the fluttering guitar work are so successfully interlaced amidst the track’s traditional folk timbre that the electronic elements blend seamlessly into the soundscape, going by almost unnoticed at times. As the piece develops, Newman’s voice begins to assume its regular, distinctive hue, whilst the shimmering, summery electric guitar chords play against London Metropolitan Orchestra’s canvas of serene strings as to progress the song towards its explosive swells of strings and synths, and pianos and keyboards, in a way that potently reinforces the track’s vivid traditional/modern and organic/electronic dichotomies. What’s more, the lyricism of 3WW further fortifies these juxtapositions, interacting with the music in a way that the lyrics to no other alt-J song have done in the past. Allusions to popular folk imagery are rife throughout the track, with Unger-Hamilton’s opening verse, which depicts a “wayward lad” commencing a potentially perilous journey, being impressively faithful to the traditions of British folk tales. The fact, therefore, that the lyrics share a plethora of themes with the classic, surrealistic exploration game for the PlayStation, LSD — which also provided the 3WW single artwork and scenery for the song’s teaser, as well as the final album artwork for RELAXER — cogently underlines the way in which the band toys with the duality of themes, through evoking natural, classical imagery to reflect concepts found in a fanciful video game.
Indeed, its the thematic attention to detail of 3WW that makes it such a compelling track, and although no other cut from RELAXER quite lives up to this rigid conceptual structure, the album’s best moments are nonetheless similarly focussed and well-rounded. In the case of tracks like In Cold Blood, this is even the case amidst the compositional chaos that sees alt-J jump between numerous stylistic principles, whilst never resting on one in particular for an especially long amount of time. The sluggish drum beat and driving guitar and circus-like keyboard groove that open the track sound impressively powerful, forcefully supporting Newman’s wavering vocal inflection as he rattles off ones and zeroes and other cryptic references to binary code. The band manages to seamlessly lead a crescendo into a complete compositional left-turn, as the instrumental assumes a sensuous, horn-driven sound that’s closer to a song from a James Bond soundtrack than an alt-J album. Despite this, the arrangement is worked into the piece incredibly well, in that it matches the might and potency previously established by the fierce first verse. These two worlds are intertwined gracefully during the chorus, as the guitars and horns come together in a way that allows them to complement, rather than compete with, one another, making for one of the most dynamic and explosive refrains to have been featured on an alt-J song. The meaty guitar melodies and creepy organ ostinato of Hit Me Like That Snare are similarly forcible, whilst also holding down the fort as the clashing synth lines and Newman’s enraged vocals wail over the top, establishing alt-J’s quintessential sense of organised chaos within a much more abrasive incarnation than on any previous song of theirs. Applying a similar linear approach to that of 3WW, which is apt given the reappearance of Ellie Rowsell and London Metropolitan Orchestra, Deadcrush is an uncharacteristically conventionally structured song for alt-J, but in a way that allows the track’s dynamic, fluttering vocals, driving bass fuzz and glitchy electronic embellishments to gradually flourish into a fantastically vibrant climax.
Undoubtedly, the recurring theme across the best tracks from RELAXER is a strong sense of direction and focus, which is wherein the album’s particularly obtuse moments are occasionally wanting, in that they can sometimes be lacking in the guiding force needed to effectively navigate the compositions’ progression and development. As an example, alt-J’s surprising and almost surreal version of House of the Rising Sun exhibits a few interesting and ambitious ideas, with, for instance, the swells in the subtle string arrangement and finger-picked acoustic guitar accentuating Newman’s hushed vocal interpretation gorgeously. However, considering its five-minute duration, the band’s rendition is unjustly extended, with there being no real climax to act as the final pay-off, despite the fact that it seemed as if the throbbing instrumentation was hinting towards a peak in the group’s performance. The same could be said of tracks such as Last Year and perhaps even Adeline, but their fractured and vulnerable performances are enough to tie over the listener and allow them to properly digest the reasoning behind these songs’ structures. The endearing storytelling of Last Year, for example, sees the song split into two parts, the first of which is sung by Newman, as he runs down the months that led to the narrator’s suicide, whilst the second section is performed by up-and-coming folk rock artist and recent Sub Pop signee Marika Hackman, as a mourner and former partner of the initial narrator singing at his funeral. In a rather different fashion, the tranquil ascent of Adeline includes a handful of alt-J’s usual offbeat ideas, such as the strangely hypnotic accompanying vocals towards the backend of the song, incorporated into a plaintive slowburner rather effectively.
Although far more scattered and, at times, inconsistent than An Awesome Wave, the strongest moments from RELAXER are successful for similar reasons, in that they see alt-J’s audacious compositional and stylistic ideas integrated into a refined, detailed and, most importantly, focussed fundamental structure. Conversely, however, there are certain moments from the record that are similarly aimless to This Is All Yours, but thankfully, such instances don’t inhibit the trio’s ability to cogently translate their unconventional creativity and adventurous attitude towards rock and pop music. Overall, therefore, RELAXER fortifies alt-J’s eccentric artistic reach and dexterity when it comes to crafting expansive and luxurious sonic backdrops, bringing the outfit back on track to being one of indie music’s best examples of unchecked eccentricity.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10