Over the last five years, alt-J have become wonderfully wonky soundtrack poster boys for nerd chic. Armed with a salvo of digital ticks and squawks, an absurd bibliography of literal and cinematic references, and a litany of perplexing sexual images, alt-J unintentionally cracked the mainstream code even though the promo for their latest album Relaxer left their fans with much to decipher.
But beyond Joe Newman’s calls of ’00, 11, 00, 11′, we were able to conclude that Relaxer would be a slight retreat from the kind of robotic bedroom rock that Newman and co. cooked up in their university dorms. alt-J rolled out three singles over the course of the spring, lit brightly by pastoral flourishes and majestic string arrangements. ‘3WW’ and ‘Adeline’ in particular assumed a folkish front, whilst the helter-skelter organ play of the noirish ‘In Cold Blood’ seemed much more in tune thematically with the highly referential indie trio’s previous efforts.
The album’s first unheard track, a re-imagining of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ under the same name, is far less affecting than the Animals’ 1964 number one hit and rather unfortunately for alt-J, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a precursor for what’s to come throughout. ‘Last Year’, the penultimate track, monotonously lullabies the listener into a slumber before Marika Hackman salvages the sleepover alongside an oddly-placed but efficacious oboe solo.
But like the self-referential Tarantino or a morose Wes Anderson, there’s plenty to explore within the narratives of Relaxer. Lurching finale ‘Pleader’ was based on a Richard Llewelyn novel and recorded in a Cambridgeshire cathedral alongside a boys’ choir. The acidic rumble of ‘Deadcrush’ yields a particularly creepy backstory too; it explores alt-J’s own self-invented theory of the ‘deadcrush’- ‘a crush on someone who is no longer alive’ as described by drummer Thom Green.
Easter eggs like these are plentiful on their latest album but it all feels a little pointless when the tracks themselves are so afraid of confrontation. The only track here that even slightly gambles is ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, a raunchy distant cousin of This Is All Yours‘ ‘Left Hand Free’. ‘Snare’ is the outlier on Relaxer as Newman ventures out of his geeky nose singing for a murky garage-rock number that illustrates yet another daft sexual scenario where ‘leather slings fall like oxygen masks’. ‘Snare’ is absolutely mad and off-kilter but it’s also frustratingly good. It shows how brilliantly weird Relaxer could’ve been if alt-J had transported their quirks to intriguing new spaces rather than reeled them in. The first two albums showed that alt-J are at their best when they embrace the weirdness and entangle themselves in their own perplexing arcs. On Relaxer, alt-J are so obsessed with a severe diversion from their distinct digital touch they lose sight of what got them here in the first place.