Just the Right Amount of Weird
Alt-J have been described with a wide range of adjectives and attitudes: brilliant, pompous, edgy, posturing and so on. The Leeds-based band (also known as ∆, the mathematical symbol for delta or change, or alt+J for you Windows users), won the British Mercury Prize for their debut full-length An Awesome Wave in 2012. Alt-J offer listeners a sound that isn’t easily categorized or dismissed. The songs on An Awesome Wave were weird and quirky; how many bands can turn a mathematical term like “tessellate” into a strangely erotic come-on, or sing, “Please don’t go, / I’ll eat you whole, / I’ll eat your soul, / I love you so, I love you so” without seeming utterly creepy and off-putting? How many bands embrace vocals like those of guitarist and lead vocalist Joe Newman’s, which swing constantly from a squawking croak to a falsetto croon?
Though following up an award-winning (though critically contested) album may be a daunting task, alt-J prove their mettle with their sophomore album This Is All Yours, their first without founding member and guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury. Success over the past two years and the change in lineup haven’t hurt alt-J’s musical output, though, and it’s even stronger now.
This Is All Yours is built around the conceit of a small song cycle, “Arrival in Nara,” “Nara” and “Leaving Nara,” with the rest of the album’s tracks hovering around and moving beyond this trio. (Nara, in case you were wondering, is in the Kansai region of Japan, and served as the nation’s capital in the early to mid-eighth century. Today, it’s best known for its tame Sika deer, who wander among the streets and temples). But before the cycle comes the haunting “Intro,” beginning with Newman and keyboardist/vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton crooning in high-pitched, a capella harmony and counterpoint, sounding simultaneously angelic and elegiac. After a minute, minimalist synths come in, combining high tones and a deeper, organ-like rumble. It’s abstract and arresting, playing with iterations of the melody in organic and electronic tones. The introduction fades into “Arrival in Nara,” where a light, delicate piano melody accompanies a gently plucked guitar in a slow, classical waltz, joined eventually by a single, distant violin shivering in the stratosphere. “Nara” begins quietly as well, but then the bass and percussion roll in, giving it the slightly dark, bassy feel that characterized An Awesome Wave on tracks like “Fitzpleasure,” adding layered vocals and laying on the synths and tinkling keys.
Before the cycle ends, alt-J move through a succession of songs that (mostly) subtly stretch their sound. The brief “Gardens of England” has light, classical-style horns that seem like something you’d hear at a Jane Austen-era Victorian tea. The synth-heavy single, “Hunger of the Pine,” strangely enough, has a sample of Miley Cyrus’s “4 x 4” (that repeated “I’m a female rebel”), which originated in a remix drummer Thom Green made for her. It’s weird, but it works. “Warm Foothills” and “Pusher” delve into more acoustic territory, and “The Gospel of John Hurt” has a kind of Western noir feel in its verses. The outlier is “Left Hand Free,” and though it takes a leap away from the rest of the album, it’s too endearing not to like: here alt-J sound like a slightly psychedelic ‘70s rock band, having fun with a free-wheeling blues-rock jam, even with a little twang on the vocals and grooving, bassy guitars.
The cycle ends with “Leaving Nara,” a busier tune than the first two Nara songs. Mournful vocals drone over trebly guitars and abrasive effects and percussion, juxtaposing buzzing percussion, airy choral vocals, and clean piano notes. It fades out rather abruptly, leaving the promise of something more (and if you happen to have the version with the bonus track “Lovely Day,” it then leaves you with another heavy dose of percussive synth-pop). But “Lovely Day,” too, ends swiftly, without resolution, leaving us hanging for alt-J’s next offering of perfectly weird pop.