alt-J is one of the more unique success stories in recent pop music. They burst onto the scene in 2012 with debut album “An Awesome Wave,” featuring career hits such as “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure” and then continued their success two years later with “This Is All Yours.” Their blend of raw guitar, playful electronics and the nasal voice of lead singer Joe Newman creates a product far different than most modern pop formulae but somehow usually more successful. alt-J’s most recent release, “RELAXER,” finds the group at their most confident, as they experiment and reach beyond the borders of their musical creativity, surprising new listeners and longtime fans alike.
Diversity is an interesting descriptor when it comes to alt-J since they already appear diverse and differentiated from the pack, but “RELAXER” is a diverse album even by alt-J standards. In just eight songs, alt-J spans from their classic sound in songs such as “In Cold Blood,” to an interpretation of the folk classic “House of the Rising Sun” backed by 20 classical guitars, to what sounds like a raunchy take on “The Velvet Underground” with “Hit Me Like That Snare.”
But to alt-J, this is business as usual and not any standard-defying triumph.
“I don't think we see it as defying the rules and regulations set by the music industry. I think we're just lucky we can do what we do and have people around us who believe in what we do,” Newman said in an interview with NPR.
He is certainly correct that fans have believed in their work in the past, and with “RELAXER,” there seems to be no reason why this support should stop.
Though sometimes tough to decipher behind Newman’s intonation and the captivating instrumentals, “RELAXER” also features compelling lyrics that create stories of their own. "Oh, these three worn words / Oh, that we whisper / Like the rubbing hands / Of tourists in Verona / I just want to love you in my own language," Newman serenades on lead single “3WW,” describing the tradition of rubbing the statue of Shakespeare’s Juliet in Italy.
alt-J’s true dedication to creativity can be seen in some of the deeper cuts on the album. “Pleader” is modeled as a hymn and was recorded with a choir and organ in a cathedral. Elsewhere, that creativity comes through in different ways, such as the choice to go after such a folk staple as “House of the Rising Sun,” which some may think of as a cover. However, both the chorus and second verse are original alt-J lyrics, making the song better described as an interpretation.
“Hit Me Like That Snare” clearly stands out as the most surprising song on the album, far different than even any other alt-J tune before. Its unique rawness and discordant instrumentals succeed in proving alt-J’s fearlessness while also creating a memorable album highlight. The repeated last lyrics of the song seem to stand as alt-J’s overarching mantra — “F—k you, I’ll do what I want to do.”
“RELAXER” as an album is confusing at first, with the chill “House of the Rising Sun” stuck right in between the two most raucous songs, “In Cold Blood” and “Hit Me Like That Snare.” Yet although it keeps listeners on their toes, the album is easy to settle into. The songs may not flow into each other, but just the aura of alt-J’s music acts as a binding force for the album. The uniqueness, diversity and surprising turns are paradoxically the consistent drive of alt-J and “RELAXER.” No song is like the last, but all are pure alt-J.