Within hours of the official release there were people placing their reviews on the third studio album by Alt-J. I’ve tried to avoid reading too much and have taken the past day or so to judge the album fairly. What reviews I have heard of definitely were very mixed, yet I couldn’t get a physical copy of the CD in store. So this is based off of my digital copy.
I saw the cover art for RELAXER about two months ago and started to get the feeling that this album would be taking different route. The cover imagery is very clearly digitally rendered and features the pixelated bloodpool of a man (humanoid?) on a road. This picture is surrounded by a thick black border which really stands out in comparison to the colourfulness of An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours. Trying to get a bit more of a feel on what to expect I went to the band’s site and found a game. If you explore around this trippy landscape a bit you can find pictures of the band, links to tracks, samples and unusual scenes. In general, it is a bit unsettling – RELAXER without a doubt was not going to be a repeat of the previous albums.
I really liked the opening track, “3WW”, when it was uploaded in March and I still like it now. The song and video are very much what you’d expect out of an Alt-J tune so you don’t need to do a double take of what you are listening to. I have to admit, this track made me feel like maybe I was wrong about this album being as different as I was anticipating.
“In Cold Blood” has a lot more energy to it and will definitely be a great one to hear live. It incorporates every element of an Alt-J hit – lalas and repeated words included. However, I did notice toward the end there is a very video game-esque synth playing scales. I’m honestly surprised this wasn’t the first single off of the album.
The third track is “House of the Rising Sun” and I can’t say it’s a track I ever expected the band to cover. The video game styled synth carries into this track quietly to make a somber but dreamy rendition of the classic song. The symphony of strings feels like it is lulling you into a gentle sleep.
“Hit Me Like That Snare” is by far the riskiest track on the album. It is rough, punky and sounds like a track your local college band would write. “Hit Me Like That Snare” does provide some more insight into why the particular album art was chosen and although, not my personal favourite on the album, I appreciate the experimentation into new sounds.
“Deadcrush” pulls everything into the classic Alt-J sound and sounds reminiscent of This Is All Yours. After listening to a few times and looking a bit more into some recent interviews, this track was actually written around the time of that album. Given the prominence of the darker bass beat in the song, I can see how it would just be a little out of place if put on the same album as “Nara” and “Pusher”.
Track six is another very familiar sounding song and opens with beautiful harmonies and tells a story of a tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman. “Adeline”, for all its familiar sounds and story telling is a creeping into something new for the band. This track also features an adapted melody from Hans Zimmer’s Thin Red Line soundtrack!
“The Last Year” is an apologetically sad track. What makes it so sad? It is about the narrator’s descent into depression and death with a guest vocalist singing at the funeral. I couldn’t find anything on if this is directly related back to an event in Gus Unger-Hamilton’s life. Although the track is very tragic, it conveys feelings of yearning and heartbreak.
The final track, “Pleader”, rounds out the album and is a symphonic mixture of all the sounds featured on the album. From the sad guitar and ominous organ to drawn out strings and choir harmonies, it makes for a suitable closer. I am curious to see if this song is a true reflector as to where the band’s sound is going.
“In Cold Blood”, “The Last Year” and “Pleader:
The tracks unfortunately didn’t flow together as nicely as their prior albums and left it feeling like it was put on shuffle, it just didn’t feel like it was organized in a specific way. My only major conflictions are “House of the Rising Sun” and “Hit Me Like That Snare”. I would have preferred on an 8-track album for there to be more original music and the sound of the second track just didn’t grow on me. As that track said though – “F*** you, I’ll do what I want to do”, so touche Alt-J.
From the lack of flow to the album, it’s obvious that a lot of different ideas and thoughts are being tossed back and forth. To me, RELAXER is a stepping-stone for something new and that is exciting. One of the hardest things to do is to attain success and break away from that sound in order to grow further as artists – it is so easy to just do the same thing again and again. Overall, I thought this album was good and the parts that did work, out weighed the bad. I am excited for when they start releasing more tracks of where this new sound is headed.