In the five years since their Mercury Prize-winning debut album, alt-J have managed to stay at the top of the off-kilter pile that is quirky British rock music. Many parts of their second offering, ‘This Is All Yours’, felt like a continuation of the first album, while other parts brought out more sides to the band. ‘RELAXER’ is LP number three.
‘3WW’ opens the album and has their signature sound painted right up into every corner. With its hammered-on guitar motif and minimalist rhythms, it’s calm and brooding: you can hear it playing underneath an aerial view of a herd of antelopes as Attenborough eggs them on with that world-famous whisper. ‘In Cold Blood’ is RELAXER’s ‘Left Hand Free’ or ‘Breezeblocks’: it has an almost identical musical blueprint to the angular stomp of the former, as well as stealing their very own ‘la la la la la la’ chant from the latter. This is the song for the meat market: slightly nonsensical but pleasing lyrics – “Chairs, inflatables, have sunk to the bottom / Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool summer / Kiss,” brash horns and a groove that you can sink into like an old sofa.
Track three is an interesting turn of events: a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Its beginnings are so starkly different from the original that until “There is … a house …” croaks its way into your ears it’s impossible to tell if it is in fact a cover. The very audible noises made by hands sliding from chord to chord make it wonderfully intimate despite its dense arrangement. It’s slow and oozing, with no rush, and it’s absolutely their own. A very welcome addition. Despite the cover, it’s ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ that is the real surprise here. It rattles along at a sleazy pace and sees Joe Newman doing some kind of Iggy Pop: “F*ck you / I’ll do / What I wanna do,” he snarls with total disregard for melodic precision; as a standalone song, it would be mildly unsettling. In this context, it leaves a very unsettling feeling that doesn’t seem to leave on repeat listens.
The second half of the album sees some familiarity slowly fading in. ‘Adeline’ builds from a solitary acoustic guitar to another dense arrangement consisting of vocal harmonies, strings and later, intense drumming. Clocking in at just over six minutes, ‘Last Year’ is a lovely two-parter, the second half of which is a lovely, sparse piece led by Lucy Rose. Throughout the album there’s charm, intimate production and inventiveness, but only occasionally does it really sparkle. It is clear that alt-J have not bowed down to the expectations and hype that has been thrust upon them since their very beginnings by making lifeless, fast-food music simply to keep the barrel rolling and for that they cannot be criticised.
With only eight tracks, this is the shortest of the band’s albums thus far; in fact, nearly half the running time of ‘This Is All Yours’. As if often the way with this band, many of the songs trickle through the speakers and remain obediently low-key, like a dog scared of jumping up at the dinner table for fear of punishment; only after several listens can you start to truly identify with them and not feel completely washed under. But then, immediateness has never been alt-J’s forte. Despite the low song count, this is alt-J’s most versatile collection of songs yet.
‘RELAXER’ is released on 2nd June via Infectious Music, and is available to pre-order here.
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