It’s been five years since alt-J bagged the Mercury Prize for their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave and three years since the Grammy-nominated This is All Yours. Although a blend of geeky, folk/electronica-infused pop remains at the core of their sound, the group push their experimental ambitions and esoteric impulses further than before on Relaxer, their third album. It’s not always a smooth ride, but when the creative risks pay off, alt-J deliver some of their most interesting work to date.
The videos for their new singles, the album cover and even the quirky promotional material released on Instagram (featuring graphics from obscure PlayStation game LSD, which you can play a remake of on the band’s website) all prove that this is a band with a flair for eye-catching visuals – hardly surprising for fine art grads. The real question is whether or not the music on Relaxer is as interesting as the material around it.
‘3WW’ gets things off to as strong start. The track jumps between melodic lines, but is anchored by a moody acoustic guitar motif that keeps things moving, and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell lends guest vocals – an early indicator of the band’s new interest in external collaborators. ‘In Cold Blood’ is closer to the kind of sound that the band nailed on its first album, this time with orchestral accompaniment from the London Metropolitan Orchestra. ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a slow, lushly orchestrated rendition of the folk standard. It works fairly well well in the context of the record, but it’s something you’d expect to hear as a Live Lounge cover. On an eight-track album that runs for less than 40 minutes, resorting to a relatively straightforward take on a (very) old song is a bit of a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is a sound of a band quite proudly not giving a shit what anyone else thinks and having a great time doing it. Imagine Adrian Mole trying to write a song in the style of the Velvet Underground and that’s about half as ridiculous as the end result: lyrical highlights include “I don’t subscribe to your cultural norms(!!)” and “Fuck you! I’ll do what I wanna do!” It does beg the question, though, is why exactly this track made the cut for this particular album.
‘Deadcrush’ is a definite highlight, driven by a moody, electronic bass line and particularly catchy falsetto vocal lines in the chorus. ‘Adeline’, which incorporates parts of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line to great effect, is another very strong cut. The last two tracks are rather unexceptional, though: ‘Last Year’ is fairly unremarkable until halfway through, when it is lifted by delicate guest vocals by folk singer Marika Hackman. ‘Pleader’ aims for sweeping orchestral grandeur but doesn’t quite achieve it in the effortless way that ‘Adeline’ does.
It is to the band’s credit that although about half of the tracks are slightly underwhelming, they do – for the most part – work within the context of Relaxer as a whole. It is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts and its unabashed weirdness is admirable: how many albums casually scatter Japanese lyrics throughout, or dedicate an entire song to reference Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley? When alt-J’s signature sounds and various eccentricities coalesce around interesting melodies and song structures, they’re onto a winner. Relaxer might be an uneven listen, but it’s one that rewards patience and repeated listens. A lot has changed since 2012, but Relaxer proves that alt-J are a band that ought to remain on the radar.