Inventive trio Alt-J’s third album is a weird pop juggernaut with a sinister side
Alt-J’s ‘Relaxer’ is not exactly an indie record by numbers. This is the group’s first album since 2014’s ‘This Is All Yours’ and it’s half a decade since the band were inescapable with their Mercury Prize-winning debut ‘An Awesome Wave’. Throughout this time, the Leeds-formed trio have only gotten weirder – they never hint at going by the book.
With ‘Relaxer’, they remain devotedly nerdy. The teaser for opening track ‘3WW’ was written in binary code and they launched a website inspired by a cult ’90s PlayStation game. But there’s so much more going on than insular geekdom. Take lead single ‘In Cold Blood’ as an example – there are horns and threatening guitar lines undercut with punitively reassuring but actually quite threatening “la la la” chants. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ is not so much a cover as a glorious turning inside out of the original, coupled with personal lyrics about a broken family. It’s one of six tracks that features a 30-piece string section, an expansive leap from early Alt-J’s signature hushed style.
‘Relaxer’ flits between two sides. Sweet romanticism – the lyric “I just want to love you in my own language”, the decision to have the group’s girlfriends sampled – is juxtaposed with the unsettling cover art of what appears to be a bloodied murder victim. This shouldn’t be all that surprising from a band that once made a video about killing one’s partner in the bath.
Still, the playful, inventive musicality that saw songs like ‘Fitzpleasure’ become live favourites is intact. ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is that moment, with its punk-cut drumming, layers of distortion and vocal origami folds from frontman Joe Newman. There’s more traditional journeyman storytelling here too, particularly on the gentlest song, ‘Last Year’, in keeping with the group’s literary influences.
By the time you get to the cinematic, religion-nodding album closer ‘Pleader’, you’ve had the pleasure – if an often uneasy one – of listening to a tight 40 minutes of music that builds a very modern wall of sound. Great album, if not entirely relaxing.
Words: Hannah Jane Parkinson