Album Review: alt-J – RELAXER

Alternative trio conjure an album of startling contrasts, pushing boundaries, perceptions and language with the help of a variety of musicians and special guests.

alt-J Relaxer Album Cover

Since Leeds alt-pop trio alt-J first broke through the music industry with their Mercury Prize winning debut album An Awesome Wave, our boundaries and perceptions of lyricism and musicality have been stretched to new extremes. Led by singer and guitarist Joe Newman, the band have managed to hone an art of complex, if peculiar lyrics, alongside a blend of distinctive vocals and ever progressing instrumental parts. This week sees the trio release their third studio album RELAXER, the first body of work since 2014’s stunningly exciting This Is All Yours, which sees the group expanding their sound to even greater territories, balancing ever more precariously between startlingly unique and just rather odd.

The first two alt-J records flowed with perfect serenity, taking us all on a rollercoaster journey between funky alternative rock and calm, intelligent folk pop. RELAXER on the other hand, like many artists third albums, moves away from the expected and in its short 39 minutes in length, takes the listener on a distorted and slightly more dysfunctional journey which sees tracks contrasting heavily in style and meaning. Take the risqué Deadcrush, which sees Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Under-Hamilton fantasising about two long-deceased historical women, whom were later revealed by the trio to be the famous photographer Lee Miller and Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Originally written during the writing sessions for previous album This Is All Yours, Deadcrush builds deep synths and panting effects into the intro before Newman’s iconic vocals pour in with glistening fashion. The chorus carries such vocal distortion that there almost seems to be a hint of mimicry from Newman against his vocal style. Line “Capturing but neve captured” refers to Elizabeth Miller as a woman of freedom, being able to do as she desires but never seemingly to be held down to something against her wishes. The lyrics highlight the desirable nature towards the band’s crushes whilst their synth pattern leads listeners into the territory of Grimes but in a calmer fashion.

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Also calming to hear is the six minute long Last Year with its mantra like vocals, sorrowful in sound yet descriptive in nature. A truly emotive track, Last Year follows the decline of a man over twelve months to his death in December in which then a surprise guest appearance from alternative singer-songwriter Marika Hackman comes in to narrate a part of the consequential funeral. Opening line “January came and took my heart away” starts the downfall before ending Joe Newman’s verse with “Happier in my cold, black sleep in my cold, deep bed” showing the inevitable suicide by drowning in the Mississippi river. Hackman’s gorgeously tone takes over the track three minutes in with wonderfully pure vocals combining with the delicately soft acoustic guitar to make the track more reminiscent of a folk song. Hackman’s cameo appearance almost divides the song into two halves such is the serenity that she produces during her appearance. The simplest track musically, with just a quiet yet moving guitar line, Last Year allows a moment of pause for listeners, who get a slight break from the rest of the record’s eclectic nature but also highlights a darkness that’s embedded within the record.

There is clearly a sense of calmness within the trio on RELAXER with more tracks being stripped back slightly more than in previous times which allows the band to conjure a perfectly atmospheric feel that swirls around the record, pausing for thought before travelling off again. House of the Rising Sun is very much an orchestral piece, delicate in its minute long organ introduction before strings and broken vocals fade into the track. Featuring the contributions of twenty classical guitarists Lyrics “Like a bird flying over forest fire / My father feels the heat beneath his wings” represent a situation of debt and gambling addiction whilst the ironic “It’s a happy, happy, happy, happy, fun day, day” represents a narrow minded approach to issues that other people are faced with. Carrying a strong folk warmth through the song, Newman’s vocals are perfectly tinged with emotion that connects perfectly with the musicality and message of the track, which is a modernistic approach to the classic song of the same name that was originally made famous by The Animals.

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The Hans Zimmer inspired Adenine was the third single released before the record came out ad follows a peculiar tale of a Tasmanian Devil falling in love with a woman. The swirling five minute piece starts with a haze of distortions casting over the delicate and repeating acoustic line, and whilst atmospheric, there is a slightly sinister feeling upon the song, one that’s not dark but rather a twisting, mysterious tale that enraptures the listener. A rumble of mopeds and pulsating synths wash across the track which can be said to resemble the hypothetical combination of alt-J and a full concert orchestra. The track is so uniquely alt-J in its production but it’s been propelled to such a proportion that for every layer of instrumentation that joins the track, you feel even more as if you’ve been transported to another dimension. A string section of startling beauty cuts away the residual quirkiness that normally overflows on the trio’s music and the end product is something you’d expect to hear as the focal point in a film. It’s a triumph of immense quality and evidence of the band’s strength in production and originality.

We were first given hints of alt-J’s latest musical diversion in March when the trio released the lengthy yet hypnotic 3WW which surprisingly featured Wolf Alice front woman Ellie Rowsell. As the album opener, it takes 90 seconds of intricate Ben Howard-esque acoustic guitar before we get to hear the ritualistic, calm vocals of not Joe Newman but rather Gus Unger-Hamilton. Newman’s vocals do take over in the second verse, which introduces one of the record’s core themes of longing and lust. The chorus is powerful and rousing and picks apart the complexity of love in society. The line “Oh, these three worn words” refers to the overuse of “I love you” and the damage that can be done with its overuse whilst “I just want to love you in my own language” also hints that some people’s portrayal of love to another might not be the best way. With the brilliant line “Well, that smell of sex / Good like burning wood” touching on danger, sex, lust and excitement, the band create a tale of a boy around a campfire and elevate it to such incredible proportions. Ellie Rowsell guests on the track with a seductive Lana Del Rey type verse which entices and seduces effortlessly and together it’s the band at their most creative and sexiest.

alt-J Live

Whilst 3WW hints at seduction, Hit Me Like That Snare is a full on erotic romp. A sinful piece of psychedelia about a person who goes to a sex hotel, the track is adventurous and carnal with a sense of old fashioned rock in the swaggering guitar line that’s matched with lo-fi vocals pumped with attitude. There’s a subtle hint of Left Hand Free’s infectious nature about it but the drums, with noticeable cowbell inclusion, develop with wonderful complexity and rhythm which really highlights the diverse nature of the band as musicians. Lyrically humorous and playful, the track is full of incredibly intelligent sexual double entendres which are completely NSFW such as line “Floor full of happy wizards scissoring” which caps of a remarkable verse that pretty much details a fantasy Harry Potter orgy. Lyrics “I won’t subscribe to your cultural norms / My church’s doctrine has lost it’s charm” signal current societies shift from a conservative past to one of experimentation and edginess and together it’s very hard not to be mesmerised by the intoxicating piece.

The intoxicity and danger that alt-J flirt with is never more apparent than on the amplified and frankly stunning In Cold Blood, the standout track on the record. Opening with one of the catchiest opening lines in recent memory with “01110011 / Crying zeros and I’m nearing 111” which cryptically is the band’s name in binary, the song references endless summer parties but contains a dark twisting theme running through it, one of death and deceit which is bolstered by a big key change and other twists that run throughout the song. Triumphant fanfares from an enriched horn section plus a wave of enchanting electronic effects that infiltrate the end section of the track add to the intensity of the track which is bold, fierce and highlights the band in full stride. The end result is quite simply brilliant and looks set to be a fan favourite for years to come.

alt j NMF

Closing track Pleader ends the record on a majestic high. Building up tension in the opening minute with a silent nightfall backdrop alongside footsteps and a distant revving of a car, haunting synths and classical guitar layer upon each other to add perfect suspense. A fluttering of piano alongside a sharp, dangerous staccato line on violin continues the grand orchestration on the track, which forever sounds like it’s been taken from a thriller soundtrack, before a huge vocal harmonisation shoots into the song amongst surreal organ chords. Inspired by the Richard Llewelyn novel How Green Was My Valley, Pleader was partly recorded in Ely Cathedral where keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton was a chorister. A breakdown of acoustic guitar is reminiscent of the folkier elements of Ben Howard before once again the track diverges to another ecstatic height. A flute line calms the multi-dimensional sensation before an alternative drum rhythm comes in with another brilliantly orchestrated section. Twisting and turning, there is at no point during the five minute length a moment in which you feel that you have a sense of where the direction will go next. Ending on a staggeringly enchanting choral and orchestral high, Pleader is a religious based  journey to heaven, with this closing track being the accepting moment into a new world. Truly mesmerising from start to finish, it details perfectly the progression of a band on a creative high.

alt-J have always managed to conjure music of extreme proportions and no more so have they managed to orchestrate a body of work quite so contrasting yet mesmerising than with RELAXER. Taking risks with a more lo-fi style of recording, the band have managed not only to conquer the emotive, acoustic style but with the help of two sensational guest singers and a legion of classical musicians, the trio have propelled their sound to even greater heights. Whilst short in length, the rhythmic escapades of In Cold Blood and Hit Me Like That Snare channel complexity, danger and debauchery yet ooze the style and confidence of a band who look set to take over the world. Make no mistake, alt-J’s quirkiness is a feat to behold and with other distinctive 21st century artists like Mumord & Sons and The 1975 being elevated to headliner status at festivals, alt-J have all the potential to become a major player in the music industry for years to come.

9/10

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