It’s 9 minutes past 1 in the morning, I’ve just finished listening to alt-J’s third and newest album, Relaxer, in full, and I’m half-tempted to sum up the experience in one word: sublime.
As a massive fan of the band since their Mercury prize-winning debut An Awesome Wave, I’ve been waiting for the release of Relaxer with bated breath. Unlike some of alt-J’s followers, for whom the increasingly pastoral and non-traditional songwriting on This Is All Yours was a step in the wrong direction, I ate up the second album’s often sparse, increasingly leftfield sounds; their sonic palette is unlike any other, and only one of the band’s releases can sate a lack of new alt-J material.
Relaxer is both a familiar and completely new beast to An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours. Opening with the hypnotic, gently plucked notes of single ‘3WW’, listeners are eased into the record –spaced-out, simple melodies build into familiar, rippling synths, all cut through by Joe Newman’s idiosyncratic yowl and a great turn from Ellie of Wolf Alice. Follower ‘In Cold Blood’ is harder (and, perhaps, accessible), but remains stereotypically odd. With keys recorded on “a Casiotone that cost £1.05 on eBay”, lyrics that alternate between binary and a bizarre tale of murder by the hotel pool, and key change that the band claim came out of nowhere, the song is typical alt-J: frankly bizarre, but addictively good.
As the title suggests, ‘House of The Rising Sun’ is a cover of The Animals’ classic; it is, however, unmistakably alt-J, with its soft strings, layered harmonies, and alt-folk air; it’s also simply lovely. Next song ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is possibly the most confusing/brilliant track on the LP’s first half, easy to pinhole as punk with its violent drum and bass loops, a snarled closing refrain of “f*ck you/I’ll do what I wanna do” and ridiculously good Led Zeppelin samples that need to be heard to be appreciated. Make no mistake, it won’t be everyone’s favourite, but it builds on the bones of ‘Every Other Freckle’ and ‘Left Hand Free’ in exciting, unexpected ways. There are echoes of ‘Every Other Freckle’ in Deadcrush, too: that same rising, heavy bass and driving minor-key funk. Just like the rest of Relaxer, though, ‘Deadcrush’ is darker and far more complex than its sonic predecessor. Newman’s fluid yelp is at its finest here, too, even when deliciously twisted by effects.
Undoubtedly, though, follower ‘Adeline’ is one of Relaxer’s true highlights. Undoubtedly, it’s also one of the best songs the band has ever written. Simple, haunting and pure, it harks back to the very roots of their material – pastoral echoes, lush Gregorian-inspired harmonies, strange samples, loops of simple guitar – and crafts this all into a swelling, simply beautiful crescendo replete with strings, echoing drums and Newman’s yearning whisper. Who knew a song about a Tasmanian devil falling in love with a woman as he watches her swim could be so simply, genuinely beautiful? Following on from this climax is the softer, sleepier ‘Last Year’. Surprisingly for a six-minute song, it doesn’t drag, but plucked strings, horns and Marika Hackman’s gentle voice are welcome additions that add dimension to the track’s gentle build.
And then, somehow, Relaxer is nearly over. Only album closer ‘Pleader’ remains, but rest assured, this final track is peak alt-J. Based on Richard Llewelyn’s book How Green Was My Valley? and thus making the song about a 19th century Welsh mining village – of course, because this is Newman et al. – expect only the most diverse mix of samples, melodies and instruments. From Ely Cathedral’s choir and church bells to police sirens, backed by the band and the 30-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra, the boys pile it all in. But it works; by God is this a band that knows how to craft a sprawling, hymn-like, near-6-minute-long song and make it sound this heavenly.
In fact, the whole of Relaxer works, and it works beautifully. On their third LP, alt-J might not have deviated far from their distinctive sounds, but they’ve truly solidified their status as genre-bending songwriting masters. More cohesive than This Is All Yours and almost as fresh as An Awesome Wave, one of the few flaws of Relaxer is its 44-minute run time: I could listen to it all day.
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