alt-J are a band of their time and place – they’ve got more than a bit of hipster aloofness, but their music sounds volatile enough to be earnest – their indie-gone-global catapult is reflected in their need to make music that is ‘true’ to themselves, yet appealing enough to their wide audience. With RELAXER, while they have created quite a bit of music that reflects that mosaic, along the way, they seem to have have lost the plot.
alt-J’s music has been characterized by harmony and subtlety, sharpened by rougher elements that lend form to the music, lest they wander into inoffensiveness. That balance is often disrupted on RELAXER – there are moments of sheer beauty, and moments of guttural, primal aggression, but not enough of the right blend of the two extremes. The singles remain some of the best tracks on the album. 3WW’s intro immediately intrigues, with subtle textures that nevertheless don’t recede into the background. The vocals are clean and appropriately moody. And then there are bursts of crackling synths that surface when the lyrics indicate a tonal shift. It’s impeccably produced, and a perfect introduction. The next track, and the second single, In Cold Blood, is a contrast; with its pointed soundscape, and lyrics that are rather incongruent, the track is a display of alt-J’s interpretability. But while both these tracks work great by themselves, their sequencing is questionable. The lack of cohesion in sound is repeated throughout the album due to its mere 8 tracks, as if a singular sound that the band wants to home in on has been deconstructed and its individual parts scattered across the length of the album.
Other tracks take alt-J’s notorious self-indulgence a little too far. House… is melodically beautiful, where the strings create a stunning atmosphere as they pitch up and down with lyrical tone. But there are wordless sections that would benefit from an additional element, but are left hanging. Lyrically, while it’s an interesting take on an old folk song, the chorus is cloyingly ironic. Last Year is overlong and dull – it has probably the strongest narrative on the album, but the production is the boring side of simple, and there’s nothing memorable enough to keep the listener hooked. Adeline picks up and makes a pretty great track about halfway through, but the first half is simply too long. Hit Me Like That Snare, meanwhile, is downright terrible. alt-J simply isn’t a band that can create a great punk track; there is an outright lack of melody, Jon Newman’s nasally voice is at its most annoying, and the outro is baffling – it’s unclear whether this is the band’s attempt at being ironically self-aware, or an attempt to capture the bluntness of great punk, and it fails on being either. Which is a shame, because lyrically, this is the most intriguing track on the album (save the outro.)
The best tracks, then, are the ones where alt-J’s newer ideas are polished and come together perfectly. Deadcrush is dark and foreboding, the production combining a noticeable edge with impeccably earworm-worthy melodies – the hook succeeds with Newman’s nasal inflection what failed in Hit Me… Overall, the song is just fun – something that can’t be said for enough of the other tracks. Pleader is an ethereal, hymnal track that is an absolute joy to listen to despite its length, thanks to the many sections the track flows through effortlessly – it’s dynamic, but never jagged. And it’s the perfect closer to the album.
alt-J hasn’t really changed. Their esoterica is thankfully intact – who else would open their track with a lyric in binary?! There are musical choices that few other bands can pull off – the marching rhythm of the “ya, ya, ya” choral bridge in Adeline shouldn’t work. but it simply does. But the band is having something of a crisis of faith. They are unsure of their direction, and have faltered along the way. To their credit, they’ve definitely made some bold choices. Some of them don’t work, but when they do, the reward is immensely enjoyable. If they take their successes, and remold and improve them, alt-J’s next album will truly be a worthy payoff. Till then, RELAXER has enough great music to tide us over.