Bringing prog back – Alt-J’s abstract ‘3WW’ is a brave comeback single

Choirs, brittle beats and deranged vocals preview ‘3WW’, the lead track from new album ‘Relaxer’.

Alt-J have never been ones to go by the book. On 2014’s ‘This Is All Yours’, the trio’s second album saw them sampling Miley Cyrus, telling a loved one they wanted to “lick you like a crisp packet” and chopping up the vocals of Conor Oberst for ‘Warm Foothills’. Even though the follow-up to the Mercury Prize winning ‘An Awesome Wave’ saw them take the expected route to arenas and festival headline slots, they achieved it through characteristically weird means.

The same proves true for ‘3WW’, the first taste of third album ‘Relaxer’ (out June 9). Shunning the very notion of a verse chorus structure, they somehow combine Massive Attack-style electronic instrumentation, choir chants, strings from the London Metropolitan Orchestra and guest vocals from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. Just because they can.

3WW

3WW, a song by alt-J on Spotify

‘3WW’ recounts the tale of a “wayward lad” – not just a bloke who sank two many WKDs in Spoons, but a stranger who finds himself stranded in England’s northeast coast. This abstract story unfolds in strange fashion, comparing the “rubbing hands” of “tourists in Verona” to a gesture of love, before Rowsell’s guest verse gives it an even more disorienting feel.

Across five minutes, what starts as a blurry soundtrack for post-midnight walks in Berlin eventually blooms into a striking, ever-changing beast. Every so often, Joe Newman’s trademark husked helium vocals give shades of the Alt-J we know and love. But for the most part, this sounds like several different wild eyed bands competing for space. And despite being the least radio friendly comeback single in an age, they manage to thread the determinedly bizarre into something special.

The band themselves aren’t afraid of bigging it up. In a newsletter accompanying the single, they tell fans: “Let’s not beat around the bush – we think it could be the best thing we’ve done to date.” A huge claim, but give ‘3WW’ time to settle and it soon reveals itself as a brilliant example of Alt-J’s willingness to be daring at the highest level.