Alt-J would just like to crack open a cold one, please. The Leeds-formed, London-based band’s fourth album opens with the hissing sound of a Coca-Cola can, before unfurling into ‘Bane’, a gorgeous and sprawling ode to the fleeting joy of drinking their beloved “ice cold black fuel”. But beneath deep choral harmonies and layered percussion, the song serves as a playful flex. It’s the first instance in which we see the trio (lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and drummer Thom Sonny Green) freely swerve in whatever way they desire on ‘The Dream’, their most open-hearted record yet.
- READ MORE: Alt-J: “British cynicism is so strong. As soon as you become successful, it’s open season”
Since the release of their curious and beguiling debut effort, 2012’s ‘An Awesome Wave’, Alt-J’s deeply intricate songs have been crammed with percussive experiments and squelchy synth melodies, and have referenced classic dark literature (Last Exit To Brooklyn, American Psycho) and arthouse film (Léon). But until now, we’ve seldom seen the band insert themselves into their lyrics.
That veil is lifted on ‘Get Better’, an acoustic number so intimate it feels like a secret. In a recent interview with NME, Newman singled out the song – which references the coronavirus pandemic – as a “big step forward” for his songwriting, as he reveals more of himself than ever before. “I still pretend you’re only out of sight / In another room, smiling at your phone”, he laments of the death of a loved one over gently-plucked guitar. The unadorned arrangement gives Newman the space to conjure some real emotional weight; his voice carries desperation and weariness, and then, eventually, acceptance. On the flipside, closer ‘Powders’ is injected with a shot of youthful relatability (“‘Free house’ / The greatest two words to hear at 16”) as a steady bassline wriggles along.
The production helps convey the sense that Alt-J have started to look for little cracks in their music where the light shines into the darkness – this is a decidedly more upbeat band. Satirical cryptocurrency-inspired bop ‘Hard Drive Gold’ stretches out into a groove of plinking keys and slick handclaps, while the fluttering strings of the tense, pulsing ‘Chicago’ make for an adrenaline-filled high.
‘The Dream’ continues the slow, rewarding blossoming of Alt-J’s records, each a little more generous, thoughtful and optimistic than the last. Yet it also feels like the first to offer real hope. As Newman sings of “feeling funky on a rolling boil” on the lush, lilting ‘U&ME’, you can almost hear a radiant smile escaping. It’s the sound of a band revitalised, having finally found their happy place.
Release date: February 11
Record label: Infectious Music/BMG