Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
Belligerent, awkward, confusing, melodic, mercurial: all terms that accurately describe alt-J’s recent effort, their third studio album Relaxer. Fans of the Leeds-formed trio, consisting of Thom Green, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Joe Newman, were waiting patiently for this project, ever since the first single 3WW was released earlier this year, ever since their previous album This Is All Yours was released in 2014, and yet Relaxer may leave them disappointed.
The immediate issue with alt-J, which is both blessing and curse, is their varied approach to songcraft. In their music you will find hints of blues, of pop, of hip-hop, of classic rock, artpop, progressive indie, jazz, the list goes on. Within the realms of mainstream indie/pop music, which is very much where their popularity allows them to reside, this makes them one of the most interesting acts to release music. 2012’s An Awesome Wave was one of the strongest, most interesting releases of that year, cementing alt-J with both a massive fanbase, critical acclaim, and respect. It was seamless, inventive, and incredibly fun. This Is All Yours was definitely a little less ‘POW’ in terms of impact, but again, was a strong album that showed the band testing the waters of other genres, and mixing the sound of the album up, in comparison to the relative uniformity of their debut.
Because of this variety of musicalities, it is the case that people have to ask, what is alt-J’s sound? It definitely revolves around quirky melodicisms, intricate guitarwork, well-balanced layering, and the distinctive falsetto crooning of frontman Joe Newman – but that definition in itself is lacking. The band could conceivably go down many many routes judging by what they have released in the past.
I didn’t know what to expect when Relaxer was announced because of alt-J’s past record(s). I very much enjoyed 3WW when it was released, a dense fabric of sound that combined the heavy bass tones alt-J use to create sombre atmospheres, and the lighter, sweeter guitar riffs that find their sound in the roots of contemporary folk, plus a delightful lullaby melody that is so simple, and yet, it is one of the highlights of the album. It’s a glorious little number, and when the vocals of Ellie Rowsell, the frontwoman from Wolf Alice, enter, 3WW turns sultry, sensual, and almost sour. But in a good way.
The rest of the album is well, odd, and short, being only eight tracks. It feels immediately more B-side than full album, an idea reinforced by the electronic campfire ‘pass-me-that-guitar-mate’ cover of House Of The Rising Sun, which to be honestly blunt, jars the album out of it’s early flow, and has me questioning the exact point of including it in Relaxer. You might aswell skip track 3, because it is mired in irrelivancy.
The other 7 tracks, while representing at times wonderful songwriting from the trio, are not incoherent, but are inconsistent. From the sombre yet sweet intros of 3WW and In Cold Blood (skip track 3) we are hit with the Monster Mash-esque, halloween jingle Hit Me Like That Snare. The song itself is pretty groovy garage rock, sounding nothing like the previous tracks, (yet again, the blessing and curse of alt-J). It’s a guaranteed toetapper, very lively, very fun, and something that would be good to see live. It ends on what only can be seen as alt-J’s response to Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of, only with a distinctly less angry or bothered sound, ‘Fuck you, I’ll do, what I wanna do’.
Another track that stands out is Deadcrush, although it will have you wondering where the first half of the album went, appearing to fly by leaving you with little recourse to return to any previous songs. It’s dark and in-your-face, reminiscient of panting wolves, showing that alt-J can write something pretty meaty. But it could be darker still.
Adeline and Last Year fail to impress. They soak into one another in soporific and dulcet soundscapes that should have been interludes rather than full-blown tracks. Unfortunately, they make me understand why the dudes over at Pitchfork used the phrase ‘terminal boredom’ to describe Relaxer, and even though I think this is too harsh a verdict, I would be at fault if I didn’t admit to somewhat agree with them. In terms of the construction of the album, these two songs ruin the final impact of the last track Pleader, which on it’s own is actually a very very well written piece, and quite beautiful. It sounds Victorian, old-fashioned in a quirky way, moody, bouncing between numerous styles of music, making you question and curse ‘Why doesn’t the whole damn album sound like this?’ It ends on a swelling orchestral crescendo of mixed vocals from Newman, and the boys choir of Ely Cathedral, where it was recorded. It’s actually a stunning end to a disappointing beginning, and middle. Which in turn, ruins how stunning it actually is.
As the title of this article states, Relaxer is hit and miss, in the most egregious way. There are goddamn lovely parts, there are punitive, boring parts. alt-J have branched out into brilliantly composed string sections, but what they’ve put into variety, they have lost in cohesiveness. Relaxer just doesn’t satisfy. I can’t tell what the band were trying to do with this project, and at times it comes across as a desperate grabbing towards high-art which just comes across as pretentiousness. Let me stress though, this album does have gems. It is definitely not a total loss.
Relaxer is neither a linear album, nor is it a multitudinous work that although jumbled, fits together like a very complicated puzzle. It’s neither here nor there. I can’t discern a modus operandi. I think for me to allow this album it’s time, I’m not going to view it as an album at all, but go back to my previous description. Relaxer is a B-side – it’s all the songs that didn’t make it onto previous releases, with some new ones, and a cover, thrown in for good measure.