Alt-J’s remit has always been disjointed saucepan hits, jingles and jangles that shouldn’t really work together. They prefer triangles to more rounded shapes, write in French, of obscure literature and the film Leon and they sexualise food packaging. The weird, precise and often stunning nerd-rock resonated with so many people who would probably all be baffled as to why the love alt-J so much. What is their formula so far? Have they perfectly crafted something or has their success been one big fortunate mistake?
Relaxer is notably shorter than their previous efforts, meaning surely there will be no filler, only ‘Dissolve Me’ or ‘Every Other Freckle’ quality tracks? After posting photos recording the album with a huge orchestra and teasing the fans frustratingly in binary talk, I certainly couldn’t wait for this album, expecting familiar elements of alt-J but with bigger sounds. ‘3ww’ is a slow burner, takes a while to grow on you, but ultimately builds into an understated yet highly emotive pay-off. Warning signs begin here, although the track is good, it surely isn’t a perfect choice as a first release, and it cannot be the best song out of eight. Self-analysed as a very challenging piece of music that arguably isn’t more challenging than their previous work, just not really anywhere near as good. The video is suitably taints the song with elements of a desperately trying to be different arsehole.
This new over-confidence rears its ugly head throughout the record, allowing for unsuccessful experiments and boring failed attempts to recreate the beautiful simplicity of ‘Warm Foothills.’ ‘In Cold Blood’ is okay, annoyingly laden with binary once again and essentially a rehash of ‘Left Hand Free,’ the now forcibly placed ‘big song’ on the album. ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is very dull, as are ‘Last Year’ and ‘Pleader.’ On such a short album, you can’t afford to have three instantly forgettable tracks. They have forgotten their own formula, a formula that I never really noticed on An Awesome Wave or This is All Yours. ‘Adeline’ fits that now obvious formula, loops, slow building and atmospheric, weirdly distant oddball vocals and nonsensical lyrics about a Tasmanian devil falling in love. In their quest for artistic progression they throw in some Alvin and the Chipmunkesque “yeahs” which ruin the song entirely from about three minutes in.
They certainly strive for improvement and progression, particularly on ‘Deadcrush’ which ends up abysmal, and sounds like a band trying to discover their difference in sound rather than band already a firm festival headliner. It is ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ that best shows the regression in alt-J’s ability and experimental style. It sounds as though it’s been lifted from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and not one of the better songs from it, which would have been much better with a Tim Curry vocal. The embarrassing closing “Fuck you” segment of the song stinks of desperation and proves the band have developed a “chuck anything in, it’ll work, we’re alt-J” attitude.
Has their ability actually dwindled, or has it always been thinner than believed? Is it possible on the first two albums everything that worked so well was just by chance, and sounded nothing alt-J intended? Or have the simply rushed into the recording of Relaxer, should they have waited to write something better instead of this dull and weird-for-the-sake-of-it mess? The band are undoubtedly growing in ego simultaneously with their popularity and it shows. Relaxer ended up being a pretty decent attempt at an alt-J parody album. The cocktail of arrogance, rushed song-writing and high expectation has let them down, and maybe taught alt-J fans that all the nice, fidgety quirkiness that was there on An Awesome Wave is tired, and maybe even that the clicks, hums and fades were never really that interesting in the first place.