Album review: alt-J – RELAXER

Fancy a concoction of grandiose orchestral beauty, boisterous horns with a fair dose of bite, and assertive commentary on the Radiohead-shaped comings and goings at a sex hotel? alt-J’s third record may be their least coherent but it’s certainly their sharpest.

Originally published in The Edge

On the eve of first seeing alt-J live in a sold-out O2 Arena, the song I played most frequently was ‘Taro,’ the bhangra-flavoured account of the death of war photographer Robert Capa in 1950s Vietnam that closed An Awesome Wave. Of course, it took me a while to realise this was the case – as a band named by Fine Art students after a keyboard shortcut, it’s only natural for things to be a little bit cryptic in the lyrical structure and delivery alike. With RELAXER, a record named after a “cool”-sounding hair product before you fall into the trap of expecting a soothing experience, this formula is very much accentuated: no ‘Intro,’ no fleuron-titled interludes; over its eight tracks, they’re far too busy telling tales of seaside Yorkshire threesomes, stabby pool parties, and ogle-prone Tasmanian devils.

Those three songs in question – ‘3WW,’ ‘In Cold Blood,’ and ‘Adeline’ – are revealing choices as the pre-album cuts, each showcasing a different facet of the somewhat disparate record. A foil to the abstract cries of Joe Newman and top-and-tail choral work from regular keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell on the former adds a delicate flair to what is otherwise a beautiful, carefully unravelling opener snapped vigorously into action as ‘In Cold Blood,’ the shortest track, surges in with Abbey Road brass and a £1.05 Casiotone keyboard from eBay. In RELAXER’s first eight-ish minutes it covers both extremes in its non sequiturs: almost haunting intimacy and a feral swagger with a grand cast.

For its next five-and-a-half, foothills get significantly warmer as London’s entire supply of classical guitarists bring a heritage folk version of that ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ a rather grand treatment as shown to Bill Withers on This Is All Yours. As ever, Newman’s lyrics are downright peculiar and at times indecipherable – on first listen, you may well come away with little else but the four-fold sneer of “Fuck you, I’ll do what I wanna do” that ends your brief fly-on-the-wall stay in the leather-clad sex hotel of ‘Hit Me Like That Snare.’ He does even work in a brief voyage to the earnestly personal, lacing a morose, slumbering diary recital through the opening stanzas of ‘Last Year’ before the vista and hope becomes clear through the astonishingly pure Marika Hackman feature and a divine passage of bassoon-shaped wholesomeness.

Before you have a chance to think about how peculiar the whole flow is, you may well find yourself booking conducting lessons waltzing around to a fifty-strong ensemble of strings, Ely choristers, an organ, and a dulcimer on ‘Pleader.’ As a finale, its orchestral swell of archaically pompous religious glee is suitably stunning. As a song that sits on the same disc as a breathy, nasal grimace of a pop record like ‘Deadcrush,’ it also makes no sense whatsoever, yet herein lies its charm. Treating the album as an anthology of discrete, interchangeable tales is to appreciate it most, as RELAXER simply needed some sort of structured tracklist just to be printed on its cover. What sits inside is an enthralling storybook, however you choose to take it.

Released on June 2nd via Infectious and BMG

Author: Xavier Voigt-Hill

I write words. Sometimes say them on the radio too.