Alt-J Return With ‘Hunger of the Pine’ – A Bold New Direction?

With a nod to the secretive tactics of old, when they refused to play media ball by not only hiding their faces in photos but purposely named themselves ‘∆’, the most unpronounceable symbol since Prince’s squiggle, alt-J have spent the year so far disappearing entirely and preparing for a fully-formed unveil.

The announcement of second album ‘This Is All Yours’ came last week, with the follow up to 2012’s Mercury Prize winning ‘An Awesome Wave’ slated for release on September 22, and now comes the first cut to be taken from the LP – ‘Hunger of the Pine’. And, though the backbone of alt-J still lies in subtle, intelligent atmospherics, it finds the band painting in bolder brush strokes.

It begins in reasonably straightforward fashion, pin-balling between two synth notes like a low level alarm signal alerting you to its presence, with frontman Joe Newman’s fragile croon twisting around typically convoluted musings on the “chain mail” in his “stomach and his heart”. Building up ominously, it all threatens to go a bit ‘Radiohead with a brass section’ until suddenly a beat kicks in alongside hip-hop tinged samples of… Miley Cyrus.

It’s an unexpected twist for a band that previously seemed about as edgy and controversial as a polo neck jumper, but strangely it works. Cyrus has previously used alt-J track ‘Fitzpleasure’ in her live shows and the relationship between the two has, bizarrely, spiralled from there, so the returning gesture seems – you hope – knowing, rather than intentionally sensationalist.

The track as a whole unexpectedly finds its closest bedfellow in These New Puritans circa 2008’s ‘Hidden’, and just when you think you’ve got it pegged, they end with a few lines casually sung in French.

Sure, it’s not like the group – now operating as a three-piece after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury – have suddenly gone death metal, but for a band who made their name by embracing the joys of restraint, ‘Hunger of the Pine’ expands alt-J’s horizons to incorporate the kind of layers, density and irreverent nods to divisive pop stars that seemed previously verboten. Lyrically however, they are still operating with as many bedroom metaphors as ever: “Realisation grew on me as quickly as it took your hands to warm the cold side of the pillow,” they intone. Sultry.

Gauging by these first snippets, alt-J seem to have judged their next step forward with aplomb. Let us know if you agree in the comments…