Aeva Milos | February 16, 2022
There’s a plight almost all artists experience: recording something so great that it’s practically impossible to amount to the same ever again.
alt-J have been in the thick of this. When they released their 2017 album RELAXER, fans and critics alike measured it against their Grammy-nominated album This Is All Yours and 2012 British Mercury Award recipient An Awesome Wave. It felt short and incongruous, a problem they attempted to solve by releasing REDUXER, a collection of remixes—this only divided their audience further. Five years later, alt-J’s new album The Dream, nervously attempts to rectify the shortcomings of RELAXER, while revisioning their recognisable sound.
In The Dream, alt-J firmly plant themselves in the American landscape, in all of its heat-stroke and bluesy glory. The record is like basking under Californian sun, perched between debauchery and the luxury of Chateau corridors, before plodding through the Wild West. There is a lucrative richness to the harmonies and guitars, a slowness that can only be paired with ice-cold Coca Cola and a slew of buzzing flies.
The record opens with ‘Bane’, a cacophony of electronic distortion—a drum beats seductively in the background punctuated by a choral arrangement. In ‘Happier When You’re Gone’, there is a distinct early 2000s hip-hop beat that opens the song, textured by stripped vocals and violins. In true alt-J fashion, it is a wondrous and unexpected clashing of genres.
In some ways, the album carries a peculiar sense of grief; it’s a band stripping back their most complex layers and mellowing their idiosyncratic style. At times, it feels like they’re holding back on something bigger—an extra harmony, a stronger ad-lib, a tighter chord.
Their single, ‘Get Better’, is a heartfelt and gorgeous memorial, but it falls short in its profundity. The lyrics are expositional at best with a lack of the clever wordplay often peddled by alt-J. Part of what makes the band especially stand out are the boundaries they push and play with in their song-writing.
There is a transitory nature to the record, a death of the past for a rebirth of sorts. It is a balloon that has been released, a candle that has been blown out. The acapella arrangement in ‘Delta’ gives a generous nod to ‘Interlude I’ on An Awesome Wave. In ‘The Actor’, a retelling of John Belushi’s death at the Chateau Marmont, a recognisable “Yeah” quietly echoes in the background—the same “Yeah” that can be heard in RELAXER’s ‘Deadcrush’. The Dream is elegiac, a funeral pyre, in its most monumental spirit.
In this album, the band is anxiously searching for what path to next forge whilst also memorialising the bygones. Is it easy to remember what it means to be a man?, they question in ‘Losing My Mind’.
Then halfway through the album, in ‘Chicago’, the atmosphere shifts and reverberates. Rain and thunder groan in the distance. A sticky humidity saturates the track—but it’s good. This is their rebirth. The second half of the record unfurls into something more adventurous and bold. Joe Newman offers sultry vocals while Thom Green lets his guitar croon with a 70s rock persuasion. The punk influences of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus steep through a layered techno composition. In answer to their earlier question, alt-J assert: I’m your man, I’m your man.
There’s then a catharsis to this record as they revisit old sounds and attempt to conquer new ones. At this point it’s hard to deny that this is alt-J, in all of their experimental and self-assured grandeur.
In ‘Philadelphia’, an operatic voice cuts through the music before a gothically-inclined orchestral composition lightly joins in with Newman. Gus Unger-Hamilton on the keyboard offers a beguiling finish to the song.
What stands out the most within this new record is the emotionality alt-J leans into. While their narrative humour remains in tracks such as ‘Hard Drive Gold’, a song about a boy discovering cryptocurrency, they are not scared to put their heart on display—a refreshing take from a trio who playfully sing about sex from an esoteric distance.
The Dream is one of those albums that grows before it sticks, like tea steeping in a mug or a good bottle of wine. Some things get better with age. alt-J has yet to break out of this shell. Nevertheless, the album is testament of a band that is constantly expanding in its musicianship. They aren’t afraid to experiment with sounds, with texture, with lyricism—even if at times, they have fallen short. The Dream is a proclamation: this is just the beginning of something new.
Listen to alt-J’s The Dream below.
Image Credit: Rosie Matheson via Stereogum