When alt-J appeared in the mainstream in 2012, they came with some heavy baggage, in the form of high (and wholly unrealistic) expectations. Touted as the new Radiohead, their ability to experiment with and bend the rules of alternative rock gave them a familiar yet fresh sound. They seemed to have the nuanced practice of musicians that had been around in the industry for decades, but with all the excitement of a fresh face.
Their first album, An Awesome Wave, lived up to the hype (for the most part). It was a hit with critics and went on to win a Mercury prize. Their follow- up, whilst just as commercially successful, earning the band BRIT and Grammy award nominations, verged a little too far into self – importance and pretentiousness.
Pretention persists with their new record Relaxer. Opening track and lead single 3ww has an atmospheric introduction that doesn’t really justify its five-minute length. It’s hard not to think of the moustached band members talking over expensive cans of IPA about how the song ‘needs’ to breathe. The explosive chorus is an unworthy payoff to those who persist through the first two minutes, but the voices of Joe Newman and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell complement each other enough to make up for the overblown introduction.
It’s a problem that persists throughout the album. Both House of the Rising Sun and the similar sounding Last Year don’t offer up any challenges for the audience. They play like an alt- j checklist of ethereal bass synths, plucky guitars and murmured, nonsensical lyrics, yet are two of the longest tracks on the album. Unlike 3ww, neither of the tracks utilise their runtime and after the third minute they become ‘check your phone to see when it’s over’ boring.
Producer Charlie Andrew returns to work with the band for the third time, making some startling choices on Hit Me Like That Snare. The ferocious drumming plays through only the left channel, which is fine on a pair of high definition expensive speakers, but through the more commonly used earphones, makes for a distracting listen.
There are some strong points on the album. The explosive In Cold Blood and the stunning Adeline encompass everything that made alt-J interesting in the first place. They are brash and unique songs, the formers closing minutes akin to a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, and whilst the lyrics don’t quite live up to the epic proportions of the music (“your triangle goes jingle- jangle”), it’s nothing short of breath-taking.
Deadcrush is one of the more interesting tracks on the album. It maintains the experimental edge alt- J found in their sophomore record All This Is Yours, without being too messy – a weak point of the previous album.
Album closer Pleader sounds absolutely gorgeous. Naturally, the lyrics don’t make any sense, but the choral vocals and giant orchestral sound push the band in a new direction. If the musical development had been made earlier, then the record might actually build on the alt-J sound. Instead, it chooses to play safe and recognisable – something the band are better than.
Ironically, whilst it’s hard to justify the length of most of the songs, the album actually feels too short. At 37 minutes, it’s a tease of where the band are at, and where they could go. Perhaps a couple more tracks would’ve allowed room for development, but at this length, Relaxer can’t afford to meander around overblown introductions and boring songs as much as it does. Whilst there are enjoyable moments, the album doesn’t really leave much to be desired, and is perhaps the most forgettable record in their discography thus far.