Alt-J “Relaxer” Review

Not entirely sure why, but I’ve been reading a lot of alt-j and Radiohead comparisons lately. There seems to be a strange correlation between the two as if the art rock, and progressive nature of Radiohead has somehow been harnessed and released through alt-j.

I’m not the biggest Radiohead fan by any means. I love their old stuff, but haven’t explored their new stuff enough to call myself a fan, but I know the defining of Radiohead’s legacy lies in their ability to craft and intertwine genres seamlessly. They were progressive and genre defining without trying to be. “Ok Computer” blended the fear of the internet, and technology with hard rock riffs, building on what “The Bends” had started. “Kid A” took that to new lengths, and created an electronic rock album at a time when garage rock was at its height. Radiohead went against the grain, and looked towards the future for their musical influence. They seemed to be anticipating musical trends rather than relying on past ones.

alt-j, is not that and looks nowhere but the past for influence. Sometimes too far back, like say ancient folk lore. Beside the obvious quirk in their music, which is lead singer Joe Newman’s nasal and almost indistinguishable delivery of lyrics, the band is not doing anything out of the ordinary instrumentally. Their melodies are simple and easy on the ear, like that of a folk band, and their percussion, while creative, is nothing remarkable. I think it’s an unfair comparison for the band, and they should not be criticized for being something they never sought out to be.

As a band, they’re good. They’re different, even if the difference is within the potentially annoying and ostracizing lead vocals. Even if the vocals are what make the band different, it is something different in an indie world where vanilla is everywhere.

Now that I feel like I’ve set the parameter for my expectations of alt-j, I should make it clear, that I enjoy their music. For the most part. Their debut “An Awesome Wave”, is front to back, a great listen. It contains probably all of my favourite songs from the band, and when released, was a refreshing addition to the music scene. Their sophomore LP, “This is all Yours”, didn’t do much for me. It felt like more of the same as “An Awesome Wave”, except with none of the fun of “Breezeblocks”, and none of the catchiness of “Something Good” or “Tesselate”. It felt like an album of pure indulgence. Bad news is, “Relaxer”, feels like more of that.

Upon first listen, I really disliked “Relaxer”. No song reached out and caught me, and when they did, it wasn’t “Jesus that guitar hook was of the holiest nature”, or “wow that bass line should be held trial before the supreme court”, it was “what the fuck am I listening to?”, and “is my volume low enough”.

Now after 5 complete listens, my opinion is a little bit more credible I feel.

If you didn’t like alt-j prior to this, there is absolutely no shot you will now. All of the music is more artsy, and indulgent, and at points it feels even more self indulgent than the last record. Songs like “Hit me like that Snare”, and “Deadcrush”, are what I feel, attempts at giving something approachable to fans, and I only say that because they’re upbeat and contain some sort of musical hook.

“Hit me like that Snare” starts with what sounds like a Robert Plant moan, and develops lyrically, into a really strange sex scene that you can only actually understand if you’re reading the lyrics. It’s kind of spooky, and sounds kind of like the “Monster Mash”, but instead it’s erotic now. There is a decent guitar riff leading the way, and I actually kind of enjoyed the anthemic end to the song where Joe Newman recites “fuck you, I’ll do, what I wanna do”. But other than that, I probably wouldn’t put this or “Deadcrush” on a playlist, or recommend it to a friend.

“House of the Rising sun” and every track after “Deadcrush”, will literally put you to sleep. And not because they’re soothing (they can be), but because they’re actually just boring. You get what they’re trying to do, and you can hear the musical influence and talent that is being exhibited, but it’s actually just not fun to listen to. Even if the music is well produced, and truly alternative, if it’s not inclusive, and at least relatively poppy, who the heck is gonna wanna listen to it? And that’s what most of this record feels like.

“3WW”, and “In Cold Blood”, which were the 2 songs pre-released, are probably the best songs on the record and the two that I will continue to listen to after I’m done reviewing this.

“3WW”, takes literally forever to get going, but when it finally does, it’s catchy, nice to listen to, and very sweet and sentimental lyrically. “In Cold Blood”, is the most accessible and fun track on the record, and probably comparable to “Left Hand Free” or “Breezeblocks”, as far as what it will do on the radio.

Lyrically, I honestly can’t speak to this album. I can’t understand a word Joe Newman is saying (as usual), and when reading his lyrics, I don’t know what they mean anyway. If you want a little bit more of lyrical interpretation, probably read Pitchfork’s review; they do a solid job of nailing that aspect.

But in regards to the culmination of the album I’d say it’s just a more indulgent, and a less inclusive version of “This is All Yours”. I’ve now become that guy who likes a band only because of their debut, and I don’t know how much longer I can truly consider myself an alt-j fan.

Maybe this review is kind of mean, but I’m not trying to be. Just trying to be honest from a fan perspective. Aside from that, just stop calling them the second coming of Radiohead, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to stick around long enough to use their talents in a more accessible and pop forward way.

They play in Toronto October 27th, and 28th, if you can grab tickets, they sound awesome live, and if you’re an alt-j fan, this “poor review” won’t deter you from the cost. See you all there.

I leave you with the greatest video the internet has ever produced.

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