Review: alt-J, This Is All Yours

Honestly, I have no idea what to make of Alt-J.
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Honestly, I have no idea what to make of Alt-J.
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opinion byBRENDAN FRANK

Honestly, I have no idea what to make of Alt-J. One minute they’ll build a slick pop groove that’s identifiably theirs, the next they play into every archetype that you’d expect from a band that’s trying to market itself as both eccentric and populist. They make an effort to be weird, but self-impose a cap on that weirdness, thus ensuring they’ll never alienate a fan. They’re very capable of creating opportunities for themselves to innovate, and equally adept at pulling U-turns, reverting to their comfort zone where a more idiosyncratic choice would have been possible. These dichotomies came to define their debut, 2012’s publically loved, critically polarizing, Mercury Prize-winning An Awesome Wave.

It’s frustrating to hear a band flirt so wholeheartedly with unmet potential, yet there is something undeniably appealing about the trio (formerly quartet, as bassist and founding member Gwil Sainsbury amicably parted ways with the band early this year). Joe Newman’s warbled tenor is equally as likely to add gravitas to an arrangement as it is to make a line like “I want to be the wallpaper that papers up your room” feel like no other lyrical choice would have fit. Even when wading through admittedly goofy metaphors and euphemisms, the band’s combination of unconventional instrumentation and seething polyrhythms is occasionally enough to keep you engaged. Alt-J do a lot of things well, but they don’t do a lot of things consistently.

This equivocation comes to define This Is All Yours as a listening experience. Much of it is overthought and over-processed, and the tone is wildly uneven, but I just can’t bring myself to hate it. Even within a single song, Alt-J vacillate between tongue-in-cheek, formidable and provocative, the net effect of which is often smothering. Previously heard track “Every Other Freckle” captures the whole of it quite succinctly, jerking from one musical idea to another amidst some questionable lyricism (“I wanna turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”).

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the best track on This Is All Yours is wordless. “Intro” performs the dual function of table setting and drawing you in all on its own. The off-kilter harmonies that dexterously crescendo into restrained polyrhythms and digitized vocals are a reminder why Alt-J are a part of the conversation in the first place.

However, if you’ve heard “Intro”, you’ve also unfortunately heard the best thing on the album. Much of the fault lies in the subsequent track sequencing. Where a higher energy number would have served better as a follow-up to “Intro”, it’s instead followed by the muted duo of “Arrival In Nara” and “Nara”, cindery, slightly tedious tracks that will likely invite unfavourable comparisons to Local Natives.

Admittedly, Alt-J’s attempt at added conceptual weight by naming three songs here after the first capital city of Japan is intriguing at its surface. They’ve doubled down by incorporating Far East instruments into their arrangements (most notably on the interlude “Garden of England”), but the concept falls prey to their seeming inability to edit their ideas, or at least arrange them in a semi-coherent fashion. The concept wavers in and out through the record’s 52 minutes, entirely non-committal.

There is little steadiness to their approach, but Alt-J do know their way around a hook. Interestingly, a lightness of touch often proves to be their most effective weapon, as on the cajoling “Hunger of the Pine” and the searing “The Gospel of John Hurt”. On the latter, they find another touchstone in fellow countrymen Wild Beasts, particularly with Newman’s theatrically rendered vocals.

Erraticism aside, there’s just enough behind this undeniably sundry record to make it work. As “Leaving Nara” fades out, you get the sense that Alt-J are more interested in remaining unpredictable than trimming the fat, as they lurch from one idea to the next. On that front, this album is a success. Alt-J remain impossible to put a pin in, which makes This Is All Yours almost as frustrating as it is absorbing.

C+