Alt-J give glimpses of something great

Life

From the incomprehensible lyrics to the impressive soundscapes, alt-J have gone a long way since they first captured attention with their double A side of ‘Matilda’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’. Two years later and they now have a Mercury Prize to their name, as well as being one band member short. Bassist Gwil Sainsbury left at the beginning of the year, just months before alt-J began to record ‘This Is All Yours’.

The band certainly don’t feel caught up in the curse of the difficult second album, even with the added pressure of major awards to their name and a shift in band dimensions. ‘This Is All Yours’ is confident, at times almost arrogantly so. The songs seem to have been created in a way that shows off alt-J’s talents in every area of making music. The album is structured with a song cycle concerning Nara, a town in Japan, although the trilogy is by no means central to the record. ‘Arrival in Nara’ begins beautifully, demonstrating from the start the arrangement talents of alt-J. It is quintessentially alt-J with delicate acoustic guitars the only accompaniment to those vocals which are so familiar. Similarly ‘Nara’ is the kind of track which could easily have fitted in on ‘An Awesome Wave’, using the technique of dropping out backing music suddenly to just leave vocals behind. ‘Leaving Nara’ finishes the album and accurately summarises the way in which the band’s development has been charted, as feedback draped riffs cut across the calm.

There is a definite development here. At points the album departs entirely from what you thought you might know about alt-J. ‘Left Hand Free’ uses arrogant guitar lines that would be more appropriate for The Black Keys or even Kings of Leon, only the brass giving it a more distinctive feel for the Leeds band. Similarly ‘Hunger of the Pine’ samples Miley Cyrus singing ‘I’m a female rebel’, yet begins by sounding like something from Danish band Choir of Young Believers. This mixture puts it almost as a strange remix: half pop, half folk melodies.

The highpoint of the album has to be the luscious ‘Warm Foothills’. Beautifully instrumented, it features words and phrases sang by Conner Oberst and Lianna La Havas as well as Sivu and Marika Hackman. The melody jumps between octaves depending on the voice and the song feels fragmented. Yet somehow this serves only to keep the listener on their toes, forced to appreciate the song and not drift off into their own reverie. It is effective and something alt-J should have employed later on in the album as ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ and ‘Pusher’ feel like filler. It seems odd for the band to be including material like this, as the album runs to almost an hour and could easily have been left as bonus tracks.

Lyrically, it is even clearer on ‘This Is All Yours’ why Joe Newman chooses to sing unintelligibly. Consider the single ‘Every Other Freckle’ which features the romantic quatrain “I’m gonna bed into you/like a cat beds into a beanbag/turn you inside out/and lick you like a crisp packet.” It’s hard to believe the alt-J boys are pulling anyone using chat up lines like that. At best, the lyrics don’t make sense, at worst, they’re decidedly laughable. It distracts from what is a musically accomplished album and hints at an annoying cleverness, implying there is something behind them. They are either as vacuous as they appear to be or there is a joke which we are missing. ‘This Is All Yours’ is a glimpse of the band that alt-J could be, showing a sophistication which wasn’t on ‘An Awesome Wave’, but they’ve got a way to go yet.

3/5

 

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