Review: Alt-J, Relaxer

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For the past 5 years, Alt-J (or ∆, if you prefer) has functioned as a bridge of sorts, a pipeline between oddball musical ideas suited for indieheads and something more aspiring. To date, it has manifested as a sort of malfunctioning pop ambition, captured by their two largest singles “Breezeblocks” and “Left Hand Free”. Outside of these juggernauts there’s a band desperate to be deeply weird, but unable to stay away from the dopamine surges that come with a soaring hook for too long.

Going off of Relaxer, it doesn’t seem as if Alt-J have any interest in maintaining that mantle. Certainly, the Lioners’ third LP has flashes of humor, creativity, and even beauty. But it’s a very lean 8 songs and 39 minutes, and – despite that terseness – it’s still awkwardly sluggish. It doesn’t even really feel like a follow-up to This Is All Yours. Much of the album feels foundational, with concepts and sketches ready to be fleshed out.

But there is a foundation. The band’s love of eastern philosophy and sound remains, best exhibited by lead track “3WW”, which sounds like early Four Tet meets Jarryd James. The influence is particularly prominent with the guitars, which (when they appear) are nimble or jagged, as on the pensive “3WW” and the rollicking, confrontational “Hit Me Like That Snare” (“Fuck you/I’ll do what I wanna do”). But the band’s Foals-style fingerpicking often drifts into something more formless and malleable.

If we could decompose Relaxer, it would probably function better as two EPs. Its songs fall into two distinct camps. Along with the two aforementioned tracks, there are moments (“In Cold Blood” and “Deadcrush”) where it sounds like Alt-J were actually interested in making an album. They are tethered to the band’s distinctive past, with wordless, sliding vocal hooks and lively polyrhythms. On the other hand, there are stretches of abstraction where there’s little to hang onto, just washes of sound or tamped guitars that seem wholly apathetic to the listener.

These tracks are less tangible and far less interesting. The deeply dreary “House of the Rising Sun” leads the charge. It shares some of its verses with the seminal rendition but mostly extrapolates, replete with watery guitars, diluted production, and wholly inarticulate vocals. It mutes the power of the story. This is seemingly a deliberate artistic choice, but it doesn’t mask the laziness in the delivery.

Joe Newman’s vocals are slurred and sleepy in general, particularly on “Last Year”, which ironically has almost nothing to offer beyond its story. It’s difficult to know whether Newman actually wants you to understand him or not. Given the triteness of some of the lyrics ("How green/How green/How green was my valley"), it's hard to say.

It’s not as if Alt-J’s split-personality approach couldn’t work, but their experimentation with form and format is oddly fruitless here. If anything, Relaxer proves they are at their best when they stick to their hallmarks, but even then they seem to be dancing on a knife's edge. Take the song “Adeline”, where they rip off their own track “Bloodflood”. And there’s the paradox. As their original creative well starts to run dry, Relaxer’s experimentalism suggests that Alt-J will continue to struggle with other styles. C