Album Review: alt-J – Relaxer

By on Wednesday, 12th July 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

alt-J relaxer photoTrue to its title, the new album ‘Relaxer’ from alt-rock trio alt-J is a deliberate attempt to revitalize the band’s safely-established sound by injecting a larger sense of space. It was hard to know which direction alt-J might take after their Mercury-nominated debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ and their Grammy-nominated sophomore outing ‘This Is All Yours’. Certainly the pressure was on them to make another “successful” album, whether that success is measured in terms of critical accolades or commercial sales, and the idea of relaxing, of taking a bit of breathing room, was surely welcome.

In terms of radio play, alt-J have already achieved a degree of success here in America with album single ‘In Cold Blood’. It’s a catchy track despite its ominous undertones, and one sure to have turned a more than a few intrigued ears in the direction of ‘Relaxer’. But as it turns out, the sharp, tightly-composed arrangement of ‘In Cold Blood’ isn’t particularly indicative of the album as a whole.

Opening track ‘3WW’ is a better representation, which might be why it was chosen to be first in the tracklisting. Its langourous instrumental intro immediately sets a slower, more relaxed vibe, and when the vocals finally do enter, they are divided among three voices: keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, frontman Joe Newman and guest vocalist Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice. The off-kilter ballad, as described by the band, “traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s northeast coast, culminating in the whispering of three worn words.” It’s a brilliant beginning, and very promising indeed when paired with ‘In Cold Blood’ as the next track in the sequence.

After that point, however, ‘Relaxer’ begins to stray from its expected path. alt-J’s cover of The Animals’ classic ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is interesting at first, especially with the minor but meaningful lyrical alterations they’ve made. But their consciously expansive musical arrangement ultimately stretches too thin, and the dramatic momentum of previous versions is lost in Newman’s somberly-intoned vocals.

‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ attempts to revives some lost energy with a dose of the ’60s psychedelia that alt-J removed from ‘House of the Rising Sun’. The song is weirdly hypnotic and sensual, but on closer examination, its lyrics (“I’m fucking loose, you’re gorgeous, I don’t care / come closer, baby, slap me like that snare”) left me feeling a little dirty, and their devolution to the lines “fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do” seems either gratuitous or just plain lazy.

The largely unintelligible lyrics of ‘Deadcrush’ are underpinned with a deep, enticing bass groove that somehow reflects back to the rhythm of ‘In Cold Blood’, and its subject matter, literally romantic crushes on dead women, is equally bizarre once you can decipher what Newman is singing. Conversely, recent single ‘Adeline’ is a mournful and misty atmospheric ballad, cloaked in acoustic strings and gauzy backing vocals, that builds to a sonically dramatic finish.

Penultimate track ‘Last Year’, featuring guest vocalist Marika Hackman, brings alt-J’s folk roots back into focus ahead of the album’s grand finale, ‘Pleader’. With the soaring voices of the Ely Cathedral choir serving as a backdrop, alt-J close ‘Relaxer’ on a dynamically and texturally expansive note, taking glorious inspiration from classic literary and musical sources of the past.

alt-J have pulled out all the stops for ‘Relaxer’, in an attempt to step out of their comfort zone and broaden their sonic horizons. The album never takes a decisive direction, and it lacks the immediate accessibility of alt-J’s earlier work, but it’s rather a brave collection of work nonetheless. If nothing else, ‘Relaxer’ is an eclectic display of the sonic possibilities at alt-J’s disposal, both for the present and for the future.

6.5/10

Alt-J’s third album ‘Relaxer’ is out now on Infectious Music / Atlantic. A list of the band’s worldwide tour dates can be found on their official Facebook.  TGTF’s extensive previous coverage of alt-J, dating back to 2012, is collected here.

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