Words About Music
British indie pop trio alt-J has confounded critics and music listeners alike since the beginning of their career back in 2012 with their debut album, “An Awesome Wave.” Every album that the band has put out has received a negative review from leading indie pop taste-making outlet Pitchfork, while some other similarly respected critical sources have praised the band. Moreover, the band has achieved a significant level of fame and success considering their strange sound, while also being despised by a significant number of people. It’s like alt-J is a more interesting version of Coldplay, or a more acclaimed version of Nickelback; at least that’s what you’d think based purely off the inconsistent reaction the band has received.
Personally, I think alt-J’s aforementioned debut is excellent, catchy, and unique. Unfortunately, the sophomore slump hit the band pretty hard in 2014, with the underwhelming and forgettable “This Is All Yours.” That record had some good singles on it, but it also made the case for alt-J as a one-album-wonder, at least to my ears.
One can imagine how a third album from the band would make me feel. I intentionally avoided all the singles that were released for the album ahead of time, mostly because I knew that “RELAXER” would have only 8 songs on it, hitting us with some much-needed brevity. While I was hoping alt-J would be releasing their masterpiece in their attempt to trim the fat, what I got was yet another mixed bag of tricks.
“RELAXER” kicks off promisingly enough, with the astonishing 5-minute cut, “3WW,” a moody, bizarre song with a fantastic, slow-burning atmosphere to it. I like the way that the song is told as a tale, with the vocal parts split up three ways to represent different characters in the story. There is a prominent bass sound and some folksy guitars, with the track taking us through several movements and disparate parts that add up to a beautiful bit of music. I think it’s the most progressive alt-J has been yet, and if the rest of the album had been like this we would have been in for something brilliant. I like that this song mostly lacks a percussive element in favor of sultry pianos and evocative lyrics about sex and travel.
Things sort of start to fly off the rails with the rollicking “In Cold Blood,” a song that indulges in what I can only describe as nonsense. I like the overall vibe and sonic palate presented on this track quite a bit, especially with the added horns, but vocalist Joe Newman comes through with some truly bad lyrics that aren’t even the album’s worst. I’m having a hard time figuring out what the song is really supposed to be about, and I’m not about to try and decipher the weird attempts at binary code thrown in there. At best, though, this track is a fucking banger akin to alt-J’s best. It isn’t the worst song on “RELAXER,” I just wish I could enjoy it to the fullest extent, despite the fact that I appreciate the band’s effort to continually incorporate lyrics which aren’t typical.
I continue to be confounded with the band’s choice to essentially cover the classic folk/blues song “House of the Rising Sun,” which was popularized in the ’60s by The Animals. You’ve got 8 songs on your album, and one of them is a cover with some added lyrics and embellishments? I’ve heard this song so many times already, and alt-J doesn’t do much to it that really justifies its existence in the track-listing, aside from the inclusion of some more folksy guitars and pastoral ambience.
The album’s first half closes out with perhaps the band’s most controversial song to date, “Hit Me Like That Snare,” a song I really want to like for its ambition and boldness and off-the-wall explicit lyrics. However, try as I might, I cannot enjoy this song at all. It is inexplicably mixed miserably, and all the impact its wildness could have had is totally washed away. No amount of references to kinky sex, Radiohead, or Harry Potter will make this song not a headache to listen to, not to mention that even the uncensored version of this song obnoxiously bleeps the word “fisting.” It really undermines the boldness of your track if you censor its weirdest line, alt-J, so I don’t really understand why you did that. I get what you were trying to do here, and I like the line about trying to remember your safe word because it’s the Japanese word for the number 4, but ultimately this song falls flat. It’s the true fatal flaw on this already totally mixed album, which ranges from brilliant to unbearable.
This track is followed by “Deadcrush,” a song about having a crush on someone who’s long since passed away. The first verse is about model Lee Miller, whom the song states photographer Man Ray went “cray cray” over. God-fucking-damnit, alt-J, can you not put together a solid concept on this album without ruining it with some bullshit? While I again like the instrumentation on this album, I can’t help but be annoyed by most of the lyrical content, the weird mixing, and Joe Newman’s occasionally obnoxious performance. And this is coming from a guy who generally likes alt-J’s music.
After some musical choices I couldn’t possibly justify, the band finally achieves some greatness again on the track “Adeline,” a fantastic track that is said to be about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman he sees swimming everyday, only to realize that he himself will never be able to have a relationship with her. It interpolates a bit from the song “The Auld Triangle” as well as a bit from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to the Terrence Malick film “The Thin Red Line.” It’s a very pretty song that shows, once again, that alt-J is capable of genius. Sometimes they choose not to capitalize on that genius and instead string together some bullshit for the laughs, but when the band hits, they hit way harder than any snare drum I’ve ever heard.
The album improves even more on the penultimate song, “Last Year,” an extremely wintry and depressing song about someone’s last year on Earth before committing suicide. It features a verse from vocalist Marika Hackman, whose new album, “I’m Not Your Man,” I plan on reviewing sometime this week. In some ways, it reminds me of a more folk-inspired version of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely,” with its poetic use of lyric to denote the passage of time and feelings of isolation. If I were to pick a favorite song from “RELAXER,” it would probably be this one for its surprisingly heartfelt and deeply sad nature.
The album’s closing track, “Pleader,” is a full-on tribute to the Richard Llewellyn novel “How Green Was My Valley,” a line which is repeated throughout the track. The folktronica vibe that persists on the album’s best songs continues on here, and while I can’t really identify with it as I’ve never read that book, I still do like the sound the band goes for here with the plaintive acoustic plucks, sharp string arrangements, and careful keyboards. It has a full, almost church-like feel to it. It’s quite an uplifting closing track, especially after the total downer that was “Last Year.” I think it’s a fitting final track to an album that should have consistently been this great, but unfortunately wasn’t. In fact, this album sits with me a bit worse than its 2014 predecessor did, if only because “This Is All Yours” had more great songs on it as well as the fact that its worst moments were not nearly as bad as the worst moments on “RELAXER.”
I will still hold out hope for alt-J, as I do think they continue to show promise and potential here. It’s a shame that, three albums in, the band hasn’t dropped anything as immediate and lovable as its debut, but “RELAXER” presents a way past the old sound that I know the band can achieve. It just needs to make sure each song is sonically and qualitatively consistent. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to cut the track-listing down and keep away from the interludes. It’s a promising formula, for sure. However, “RELAXER” doesn’t execute as frequently as it needs to to really warrant a positive review. Flashes of brilliance may light up in the pan here and there, but there’s just as much to love about this record as there is to hate.
SCORE — 5.25 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — 3WW, Adeline, Last Year, Pleader