Alt-J: Relaxer – English trio catch their breath and regroup
Alt-J are one of those bands. Transatlantic chart-toppers and arena act by night, ordinary Joes by day, the definition of mild-mannered young Englishmen. Google all you want, there are no tales of on-tour meltdowns, celebrity love triangles or Twitter spats.
For better or worse, the lack of an “image” and “style” makes the trio wholly anonymous and their music oddly uncategorisable. Meaning? Being a blank slate should make it easier to start over.
Thus, third album Relaxer is less accessible than the melodic Mercury Prize-winning An Awesome Wave, but more engaging than their frequently aimless follow-up. It’s a catch-your-breath-and-regroup kind of comeback with a restless edge, the sound of a band with the world at their feet and they’re not quite sure whether to kick it away or pick it up and embrace it.
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Produced once again by Charlie Andrews, the album marries orchestral acoustic numbers with disparate outliers, a curious mix of sombre mood-setters and instant-gratification payoffs. 3WW is like a José González and Four Tet take on English folk music, the gorgeous, lush non-cover House of the Rising Sun carries a melancholic Adrian Crowley vibe, and Adeline is an anxious, uneasy love song (and neatly borrows a few words from The Auld Triangle). Joe Newman can’t resist lacing his lyrics with a cerebral coating; these songs are eminently lovely, if not quite lovable.
At the other end of the sonic scale, the infectious Deadcrush could be a TV on the Radio and Doseone collaboration, In Cold Blood is a high-energy, brass-driven sword fight and Pleader moves from slasher-flick strings and looming, hammered dulcimer to full choral finale.
The most arresting moment comes on the protopunk-fueled Hit Me Like That Snare, with Newman defiantly shouting “f*ck you, I’ll do, what I want to do”. It’s a rare display of unleashed emotion.
A strangely absorbing eight tracks. Relaxer is incohesive and unsettling for sure and a crossroads on the path to greater success.