alt-J: “RELAXER” Album Review

Written By: Ethan Griggs

My Music: ethangriggsmusic.virb.com

The world of music journalism and criticism has always been split on alt-J. One side calls the Leeds trio the successor to Radiohead, and the other is constantly disappointed by what they say is a sound that is too sprawling and that – well – they sound nothing like Radiohead. Good or bad, though, their new album RELAXER shatters any preconceived notions of what this band is really about, and it sounds like the band itself doesn’t  really know the answer to that either.

The group’s third album isn’t likely to disappoint hardcore fans. The core of the alt-J sound is still intact, but it’s been augmented by waves of string quartets and other orchestral arrangement. Much of the record sounds like Mumford & Sons if they traded the banjo for a Stradivari and a bow. There’s still plenty of psychedelic mumbling and ridiculous song craft to go around. With lyrics like “Fuck you/I do what I wanna do” from “Hit Me Like That Snare,” are adolescent enough to be one of the festival seasons largest crowd chants. That isn’t to say that this is a mainstream sounding rock record; this album has the same freshness that made their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave and 2014’s This Is All Yours enjoyable.

The more interesting musical moments are very rewarding, and many of them show up on the later half of the record. The pop banger “Deadcrush” is easily one of the best tracks on the album, and it largely works as a pick-me-up following the album’s brooding first half.

Another interesting if not rejuvenating number is the cover of the traditional song “House Of The Rising Sun”. The band have taken the eerie, minor keyed 20th Century ballad and transposed it to a major key, and the results are an almost unrecognizable rendition of a song famously coveted by Bob Dylan and the Animals, among others. The relaxing (pun intended) “Adeline” features excellent acoustic elements and one of frontman Joe Newman’s best vocal performances.

alt-J has always gained praise for offering a little bit of everything, and RELAXER is no exception. There’s everything on this album from the instantly recognizable brand of alt-rock all the way to Kate Bush-type singalongs. They may not be as effectively eclectic or as mind-bending and trailblazing as bands like Radiohead, but what the trio does is undeniably unique. As complemented by the album’s stark artwork, RELAXER is an exercise in minimalism in an era where maximalism is the standard in rock music.