Loveable weirdos alt-J are the unlikeliest success. The talent is there, but their music has always been at odds with every popular trend. Their first album won the Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello and made them a household name; maybe if you live in a particularly edgy household anyway. Third album Relaxer is more of the same but it’s on a bigger stage.
All of the hallmarks are here: plucked folky guitar, spaghetti western riffs, sparse cymbal-free beats and Joe Newman’s dorky vampire voice. To that add a smattering of horns, woodwind, vintage synths and extensive supporting orchestration: call it artistic vision or just a larger budget.
There is a new sense of adventure and daring-do that alt-J exhibit throughout Relaxer. ‘In Cold Blood’ is a confident, ballsy art rock track that recalls Roxy Music as performed and recorded in a garden shed.
Newman’s oddball vocal kinks (the ‘la-la-las‘ are out in force) are as captivating as ever. Add to that Hammer-horror organ touches and triumphant trumpet fanfare, and you have a track worth talking about.
I can’t say the ‘House of the Rising Sun’ cover will be blowing anyone’s skirt up: it’s a meandering mess that may have once sounded good on paper. But things get properly silly on ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ where Newman tosses out F-bombs and come-on’s like he’s drunk at an open-mic night.
It’s more ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ than Lou Reed, but then it’s hard to dislike a song that resorts to the cowbell this readily.
New song ‘Adeline’ isn’t quite up to ‘Matilda’, but alt-J should definitely stick at writing songs about girls, because it’s still pretty good.
An Awesome Wave was packed with ideas but on Relaxer alt-J seem to be reaching the fringes of their inspiration. It holds onto the core identity of the band and builds on it in some areas too, but next time around we’ll need a bigger leap from them to stay interested.
Picking over the theme of Relaxer will keep the fans busy for years to come, but the image of a car crash victim seems appropriate. There is violence and loveliness on this album and they blend together in confounding ways. It’s like an album of love songs written by a murderer.
At under 40 minutes this is a lean listen but alt-J are still able to impart the sense of expansiveness that make them special. This isn’t grandiose the way Queen or Muse or even Radiohead are. Yet there’s a widescreen feel to this album that is at odds with alt-J’s characteristic introversion: it’s this friction that ensures Relaxer is a success.