While it contains some exceptional highlights, ‘Relaxer’ finds Alt-J often struggling to find their footing on an admirably bold third album.
Despite their transatlantic fame, Alt-J have always been an enigmatic band. They always seemed to have a complete disinterest in having any kind of a band image and a perplexing fear of interviews and photoshoots, while musically just skidding that line between catchy tunes and challenging and, for lack of a better word, pretentious songwriting. These traits are what brought them their success in 2012 with their Mercury Prize-winning debut An Awesome Wave. However, the 2017 version of Alt-J seem to be noticeably more settled into their own groove and their lives as artists. Their third record Relaxer showcases the band pushing onwards into new directions and experimentation, with a confident stride that was visibly lacking before. The boldness is definitely commendable and yields many interesting results, but sometimes makes you wonder if it really has a solid foundation.
Right from the start, it’s noteworthy that the full album contains only eight songs and comes in at 39 minutes. Makes you wonder if its condensed nature is a response to the main criticisms of their 2014 sophomore release This Is All Yours, knowing that that one came in at over an hour and a lot of it left very little impact, save for a few standouts.
But as with their debut, the lack of run-time doesn’t equate to low density. If An Awesome Wave excelled in putting in so many orchestral touches and little riff variations and innuendos that subsequent listens felt almost like a re-discovery, Relaxer goes more for a surplus of complete stylistic shifts. By the time the sixth song comes along, the band will have had at least three complete overhauls, both genre and production wise.
You can write some of this off, knowing that the album was recorded in multiple venues, utilising different recording techniques for different songs. Such as having 20 classical guitarists play at the same time on the band’s interpretation of folk traditional ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Or having a 30-piece orchestra as well as a cathedral choir on other songs. And there is something to be said about an artist’s refusal to be contained within the limits of their three-piece ensemble. There are times though, when Alt-J leap confidently into a completely different feel, and land face first.
One of these is their attempt to write a rock rasp-fest that is ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. The song sees lead singer Joe Newman trying his absolute hardest to pull off sounding completely ridiculous while maintaining a somewhat cool feel about the performance. But Alt-J were never notable for their rock star vibes and stage presence to begin with. And this foray only ends up sounding like a reject from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The track culminates in a cringe-worthy segment of shouting “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do” and it leaves the listener thinking whether this is some kind of ironic and self-aware statement or not. And even if it was, was it worth it?
Despite some shortcomings and very questionable choices, the album does contain highlight moments, not even just considering Relaxer’s track list, but taking into account the band’s entire discography so far. The slower, almost haunting singles ‘3WW’ and ‘Adeline’ are tracks that reward patience and multiple listens, as hearing both of them slowly build and settle and expand is an experience few other bands could provide. The details, especially the hidden string section in ‘3WW’ are a showcase of the little touches to songs that Alt-J are so good at placing just right. Same goes for one of the very sparse up-tempo tracks on the album ‘In Cold Blood’. Whilst the simplistic structure and throwaway binary code references are nothing enchanting, the added horn section gives the song flair and energy, that’s needed considering how on the down-low most of the other songs on Relaxer are.
The album’s closer ‘Pleader’ is hymn-like, pompous and self-indulgent in the best way. Complete with strings, an organ, some distorted bass and, as mentioned previously, a full cathedral choir from keyboardist/vocalist Unger-Hamilton’s childhood, it’s an exercise in arrangements and grandeur. All the while managing to sound both new and unexpected and yet somehow intrinsically Alt-J.
All in all, Relaxer still sees Alt-J struggling to find sure footing a bit. Highlights like ‘Adeline’ and ‘Pleader’ are exceptional and throw glimpses of what Alt-J could still do, but perhaps overly-confident choices like ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ weigh the album down and make it another in a now series of Alt-J albums trying to etch a new artistic path for themselves. Despite this, headfirst dives into the weird and unknown lead to true innovation (see Radiohead, a band to Alt-J, whilst prematurely, often get compared). And if not entirely successful this time, the band’s clear efforts and artistic drive leave us hopeful for a matured and fully realised release in the future. (7/10) (Ellie Wolf)
Listen to Relaxer here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Alt-J, Atlantic, Ellie Wolf, Gus Unger-Hamilton, Infectious, Joe Newman, Relaxer, review, Thom Green
Currently studying Mathematics and Music at Leeds University. Generally a fan of all things musical, cultural, and pretentious. Values aesthetic way too much.
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