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Alt-J – “Relaxer” Review

An uneven but complex beast of beauty

Alt-J’s first two albums are wildly different despite having a common stylistic verve and theme and both are fantastically artistic in their own ways. Their debut chock full of riffs and catchy kooky rock, the second a more contemplative reflection and meditation. Returning with their third album, Alt-J have tried to mesh everything all together and I’m slightly sadden to say it comes across slightly uneven.

As a clever rock band, “3WW” lets the group play out their brooding side with low-key melodies, pulsating beats and thick bass. When the vocals do break in, they set the palette for the track to grow and evolve in its bitter-sweet way. The lack of rush to hammer home a point works to the tracks advantage. On the complete flip side “In Cold Blood” is like a lost track from their debut “An Awesome Wave” – but with added organ and brass. The track is catchy and reminds me of spaghetti western rock from the 60’s. The brass really adds a great extra dimension to the track and there’s plenty of percussive creativity behind the scenes.

However the first of a couple of missteps come with a drone cover of “House of the Rising Sun” which sits more of the symphonic side of things but really doesn’t go anywhere with the material. It’s string and guitar interplay is nice, but it meanders without impact. It’s more confusing when paired with “Hit Me Like A Snare” which starts out really interestingly experimental with strange vocal warping and a stilted spoken punk rock style of vocal delivery. However it all falls apart as the band goes for crass “Fuck You I’ll Do Want I Want” on repeat for the last section. It feels more like a b-side demo – and that’s fine – but when the band is flipping between lots of styles, it really pokes out as a weird addition.

“Deadcrush” however works like a dream. The bass led rhythms and tunes mixed with clever production makes for a dark and brooding stance to play with. Alt-J make a habit throughout the album with playing off discordant notes against each other and here it really improves the mood and enhances a straightforward track into a crazy piece you could have on repeat again and again. “Adeline” then showcases the bands more subdued side for the most part to perfection. Again, the push to garish and nightmare like sounds and tendencies create some really unique distorted chants and marching percussion behind what is a deeply depressing track. The juxtaposition of the two speeds of delivery in the tracks final third show exactly the kind of magic Alt-J make when everything works.

“Last Year” is an acoustic piece with some woodwind and here, just like in 3WW, Ellie Roswell from Wolf Alice adds a female vocal that really gives a lighter tone and some extra sensuality to the tracks. The closing track “Pleader” is the most complex and interesting of the album using a ton of instruments to create a freaky circus show of confusion and despair. However, as the track continues it slowly pulls itself together into something quite symphonic, wholesome and understatedly humble. It’s like a simple hymn in the finale with a giant string arrangement powering through behind it but never taking over. It’s a great finale.

What’s a shame is that the album is short. Eight tracks, two of which do not grab me and the rest range from good to classics. If there were another two tracks on the album that could fit in that range, then it wouldn’t feel like such a mixed bag but the shifts in tone, pace, style and emotion flip too quickly for tracks that ask you to invest in them – and often they don’t really have the pay off – and that’s what makes the album not work as a whole. It’s unusual for me to want to listen to tracks individually rather than in an album, but I think Relaxer is better enjoyed that way.

Recommended Track : Deadcrush

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