By Innes MacKintosh
After forging a distinctive sound and style in their first two albums, alt-J branch out into slightly proggier and more experimental territory in their latest album, RELAXER. Despite all three albums being produced by Charlie Andrews, this sounds very different from its predecessors, with more unusual textures and styles finding their way into this album, such as faux-medieval songs, Eastern-sounding melodies, and a larger sound overall.
That’s not all that’s changed. RELAXER sees the group take a different approach to the art of album structure. Their first two outings, while great, are complex affairs replete with intros, interludes and narratives with 2014’s This is All Yours being over an hour long – so the compact, eight-song tracklist RELAXER which comes and goes within 40 minutes should make a refreshing change.
That said, this album feels long. Half of the tracks stretch beyond five minutes, and although there are no “interludes” as such, many of the tracks consist of extended build-ups which essentially serve the same purpose. For some tracks, this extra space gives them time to develop, change and create very striking music whereas for others the added run-time only serves to stretch them thin.
The album gets off to a great start with the atmospheric opening of ‘3WW’, a tense programmed drum loop punctuated with flourishes of flamenco style guitar, which builds to a climax and falls away again. It’s quite a beautiful song at times, and certainly a standout of the album. Another highlight is ‘Last Year’, a very minimalistic track with whispered vocals and guitar creates an immensely soothing mood despite its dark subject matter. The female voice in the song is incredible, and the oboe solo (yes, that’s correct) is very effective. We also get, from left-field, a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, which works surprisingly well and manages to be quite inventive despite the song having been covered by every band and their dog since the 60s. The closing track, ‘Pleader’, brings back the classical guitar of the opener which brings a nice sense of closure, and the lush arrangement of strings and vocals ends the album on a triumphant note.
However, several songs fail to fully hit the mark. The straightforward alt-rock bombast of ‘In Cold Blood’, which with its “la-la-las” feels like a distant relative of the band’s great ‘Fitzpleasure’, and despite some cool elements, it comes off feeling a bit unoriginal. ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is the most aggressive track on the album, with its outro of “what I wanna do/fuck you, I’ll do”, but despite its killer title, a great vocal performance from singer Joe Newman and some top-notch cowbell, it still feels a bit forced, a kind of teenager trying to be tough, and remains unconvincing. Furthermore, the bravado of both these songs feels decidedly out of place within the otherwise calm atmosphere of the album. The pairing of ‘Deadcrush’ and ‘Adeline’ forms a rather dull section halfway through the album with both songs outstaying their welcome whilst never really settling in or developing. It’s a shame, as the vocals and melody on the former are brave and impressive, but aren’t given an interesting enough backing to sustain them.
RELAXER ends up as a bit of a mixed bag, coming to an almost 50/50 split between great and not. At times, it is bold, inventive and impressive, but at other times it ends up unoriginal, overlong, and unmemorable. Lyrics are at a minimum on several tracks, meaning that they end up almost as mood music, which, considering the title, is perhaps the intention. In that case, it’s strange that there should be any space given to more aggressive tracks, as they really disrupt the overall mood of the album. Nevertheless, the new direction in which alt-J seems to be heading is commendable, as the more subtle and soothing tracks do live up to the album’s name and succeed in creating really therapeutic music.