No matter how many ‘likes’ that Youtube video parodying Alt-J’s style amasses, no matter how many cynics dismiss the band as mainstream, I will forever count Alt-J among the greatest bands of this era. RELAXER, the three-piece’s new LP (their second since the departure of bassist, Gwil Sainsbury), however, does not contribute much to this great esteem.
The eight-track album follows on from a globally acclaimed debut, An Awesome Wave, and a refined sophomore oeuvre in This Is All Yours. Admittedly, the bar was set very high in the first place; but I regret to say that RELAXER has failed to clear that bar.
RELAXER’s release has been preceded by those of singles, 3WW and In Cold Blood, as well as an online video game which features the former as a soundtrack. Listening to these two pieces, I was filled with hope. 3WW’s progressive style and collaboration with Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell hinted at the twist of experimentation one wishes for in the third record of an iconic band like Alt-J. In Cold Blood, on the other hand, looks back more towards the group’s Math Rock origins.
What made these singles so pleasing, was a newfound dynamism. The climactic, confidence exuding chorus of 3WW, and the boldness of the instrumental of In Cold Blood suggest a collection of songs exhibiting a thrilling melange of maturity and audacity. Yet the album trails off. House of the Rising Sun focuses on Joe Newman’s distinct vocals which are set atop a gently meandering, hi-fi acoustic backing – nothing too offensive. But it’s the procession of a song like House of the Rising Sun into the almost antithetical Hit Me Like That Snare that forces me to question RELAXER. I’m a big fan of Hit Me Like That Snare, a grand departure from Alt-J’s usual, clean-cut sound towards a Garage Rock flavour, enhanced by masterful production by Charlie Andrews. Nonetheless, shifts between such contrasting genres are never easy on the ears.
Transitioning from the sinister, enthralling Deadbeat into the nauseatingly pleasant Adeline commits the same crime. RELAXER’s inconsistency is finally amplified in the album’s monotone conclusion, as Adeline ushers in Last Year, a tender acoustic piece, before Pleader rounds off the LP. By no means have the outfit from Leeds produced a bouquet of rotten tracks, but RELAXER is not the cohesive, considered album that I hoped for, given the stellar records that preceded it.
All this said, fans of Alt-J should not despair. RELAXER may not have met my standards for a third studio album, but it isn’t without the charm of an Alt-J LP. There are still plenty of obscure cinematic and literary references to prompt a Wikipedia adventure. There are still la-la-la-la’s abound. I’ve been harsh this time around, and maybe I should let them off the hook this time. Even so, RELAXER’s notes of haphazard experimentation and disorganisation beside a novel aura of confidence might point towards complacency, a dangerous state of mind which I pray has not befallen one of my favourite bands.