Alt-J were born of the internet age; they also encapsulated it. Creeping out of their Leeds University accommodation in 2007 with their un-Googleable symbol name, they sang of maths and new dimensions. By initially obscuring their faces in every press photograph, they made sure that their image was just as complex as their songs. Their Mercury Prize-winning 2012 debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ triumphed, though, because it picked up the melody ball that Radiohead had tossed aside. Wrapping monkish tunes – hushed because they weren’t allowed drums and bass in their student halls while writing it – in minutely crafted electronics and sparse, tribal harmonies, it sounded like an electropop Fabergé egg; precise, ornate and crafted by master laptop artisans.
Recorded without bassist Gwil Sainsbury – who left amicably in January because, according to keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, “he was really just not enjoying aspects of the lifestyle of being in a band” – this 2014 update starts in a similar vein: their second ‘Intro’ in as many albums is all synthesized church chorales and Arabian menace, singer Joe Newman muttering in a half-formed language all of his own. But as the delicate piano, guitar and string paean ‘Arrival In Nara’ – the first of three songs referencing the Japanese city where deer roam free in its central park, a metaphor for the album’s sense of creative freedom – lilts in, it emerges that Alt-J have ramped up their pastoral side. Wasps flit between songs, birdsong chatters, church bells chime and there’s an outrageous recorder interlude called ‘Garden Of England’. Conor Oberst, Sivu and Lianne La Havas are recruited to add cut-and-paste vocals and whistling solos to a sunrise ballad called ‘Warm Foothills’, whose lyrics about an idyllic swimming trip are taken from Iris Murdoch’s memoir. ‘Choice Kingdom’, with its falsetto wisps of “Rule Britannia” and distant space noises, sounds like the last whimper from a dying planet.
Downbeat and often acoustic-led, the plan is to infuse their icy diodes with a more natural-sounding human warmth. To the same end, there’s added passion alongside the pastoral themes. Newman has previously sung like a soul eunuch, but the grinding ‘Every Other Freckle’ has him coming on like R Kelly on ketamine: “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag”, “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”. Um, easy tiger.
Bar the southern gothic chants of ‘The Gospel Of John Hurt’ there are few big singalong moments like ‘Breezeblocks’ here, but plenty of fun being had: witness the flurry of samples after ‘Bloodflood Pt II’ that leads to a slow, computer-addled cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’, the Black Keys blues pastiche ‘Left Hand Free’, or the KRS-One line “That’s da sound of da police” swirling out of a haze of deadpan half-words. The album’s first single, the Bon Iver-style woodland throb of ‘Hunger Of The Pine’, bursts into its grandiose trip-hop finale with a sample of Miley Cyrus warbling “I’m a female rebel” from ‘4×4’. Playful, restless minds are at work, but as the aforementioned ‘Bloodflood Pt II’ (the sequel to ‘Bloodflood’, from ‘An Awesome Wave’) wraps the whole thing up in wafts of lustrous piano, itchy ghostbeats and glacial brass, ‘This Is All Yours’ engulfs you like a deep forest. Alt-J Mk II, then: an impressive expansion, with hugely improved connectivity.