Joe, Thom and Gus spent most of 2016 unwinding and moving on to new projects after working extensively since debut album An Awesome Wave. The band also began the process of recording their third release towards the end of the year, working at Iguana Studios and Abbey Road, with influential bands The Beatles and Pink Floyd recording at the latter. The result is RELAXER; an album with two clear halves, and illustrates the creative direction alt-J constantly shift in from release to release.
In the run-up to the album’s release, alt-J released almost half the album’s tracks as promotional singles, with the most prolific and promoted releases being ‘3WW’ and ‘In Cold Blood’ – both tracks were performed by the group on popular music show Jools Holland. These two songs are the strongest on the record; first track ‘3WW’ was clearly made to be an album opener. Kicking off with simple, delicate guitar chords, the song builds all the way through the long instrumental introduction and first verse, before reaching its powerful chorus. alt-J’s songs are filled with stories and patterns – ‘3WW’ reminisces on a romantic summer encounter and three vocal parts, including a soft, airy vocal from guest Ellie Rowsell (lead singer in Wolf Alice) reflect on three different aspects of love.
The inconsistency of the album’s overall sound can be seen as early as Track 2 – ‘In Cold Blood’ switches from calm and soothing to upbeat and lively, and follows the structure of a typical pop song more. The song opens with binary coding, and although it shouldn’t work, it really does. Whilst the lyricism is weaker than in other tracks – there’s a lot of unnecessary and lazy repetition of lyrics – the overall song is ridiculously catchy, and it’s the saving grace of the track. ‘In Cold Blood’ also has a cleverly deceiving cheery vibe which deflects from its much darker meaning.
Albums typically run for a minimum of 10 tracks, so it’s disappointing that there are only eight songs on the record, with one of those being a cover of traditional folk song ‘House of the Rising Sun’. alt-J put a completely different spin on the track, noticeably different from the version The Animals got to No1 back in the 1960s. I like how rather than the melody being guitar based, orchestral instruments such as the violin are used in the instrumental. However, alt-J’s cover has a serious lack of the passion and emotion the meaningful lyrics are sung in the classic Animals take; for me, the cover falls a bit flat.
RELAXER is a record which picks up and drops pace all the way through; by the time you reach the halfway stage of the album, the quality and pace of the record pick up again. ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is a risque tongue n cheek track – its flavour is very 1960s, apt as the lyrics describe an imaginary sex hotel scenario, full of free love and experimental metaphors and connotations. ‘I don’t subscribe to your cultural norms / my church’s doctrine has lost its charm’ – alt-J don’t mind being rebellious one bit, and their ode to LGBT sex, ambiguous sex, just exciting thrilling sex, in general, pushes the boundaries and is a highlight of the record.
‘Deadcrush’ starts off pretty strong, but whilst ‘In Cold Blood’ is immediately toe-tapping catchy, it feels like an even more basic, samey version of the song and doesn’t bring anything new to the record. It is essentially a filler track, and on an album as short as RELAXER, every track should be excellent standalone. ‘Deadcrush’ also ends the up-tempo segment of the release – the three concluding tracks ‘Adeline’, ‘Last Year’ and ‘Pleader’ wind the album down. alt-J are at their best when they strip it back and make soft, indie ballads. Whispy, sentimental and dreamy, ‘Adeline’ and ‘Last Year’ are especially great tracks, and whilst some people may feel the tracks sound too alike to each other, they emphasise that alt-J sound most gorgeous when they strip it right down.
RELAXER likes to surprise and keep the listener on their toes right up until its final moments – the beginning of concluding track ‘Pleader’ almost sounds initially like it isn’t beginning. Quiet, nighttime noises run for the first 30 seconds of the track and not an awful lot happens, then suddenly Spanish sounding guitars trickle into the song, and the melody becomes an assortment of orchestral instruments, strings, an organ and towards the ending of the track a boy’s choir. Although for a finish to a record the track is pretty long, it’s a proud, uplifting hymn, inspired by the book transformed into a classic Oscar award winning film ‘How Green Was My Valley’.
alt-J have never fitted the mold of one genre perfectly – whilst shifting sounds may have worked well for their other two albums, unfortunately, RELAXER is a very mixed bag. Over the top production on some tracks makes the lyrics hard to hear, whilst other songs such as ‘Deadcrush’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’ are average at best, as well as very mundane. There are also moments of creative genius on the album, highlighted at the beginning and the end of the record – in fact, due to this creativity alt-J have the uniqueness and exploration of style to be one of the best bands in the world, but to become iconic, they need to improve on the consistency, and bring back the spark they had with their earlier material.