alt-J – The Dream

alt-J’s big comeback record sees the group continue to monotonously shuffle in place.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to an online review link provided by the album’s distributors, Canvasback and Infectious.

I know that we arguably shouldn’t, but can we talk about that viral parody for a moment?  For those who don’t know: in early 2015, two members of the band Fleece uploaded an improvised parody of the music of alt-J to YouTube, consisting of three minutes of loop-pedal-aided nasal requests to “put it in my butt” over a never-changing monotone base with an occasional tambourine bash whilst snacking on rice cakes.  Although not meant as anything mean-spirited, and with alt-J themselves taking the vid in good humour, it’s the kind of parody which elicits a “STOP! STOP! HE’S ALREADY DEAD!” reaction in me every time I see it.  Once you get past the single-entendre lyrics, the recasting of singer Joe Newman as Orlando Weekes ingesting helium, and the spectacle of Guy on the Left clearly being off his tits, the parody lasts because it highlights the true long-standing fault in alt-J: their music is mostly really bloody boring.

Trust me, I don’t like tarring a band with the “boring” label.  Especially since I used to really like their 2012 Mercury Prize-winning debut, An Awesome Wave, and I’ve hit that age in my musical lifespan where I get all “sincerely, good for you” when someone likes music I don’t.  Yet, that’s honestly what sticks out to me the most about the vast majority of alt-J’s music.  This ponderously serious, unadventurous slog which rarely progresses in any meaningful way from minute one to minute five, instead clumsily slathering a number of ProTools edits on top as a distraction.

It’s not that a band whose lyrics are often torturous analogues for sex jokes takes itself too seriously – if anything, songs like “Left Hand Free” and “Hit Me Like That Snare” are compelling arguments for them to keep their comedic sides locked away from sight.  It’s that their songs are basic and unmemorable, marching in place, rarely trying to succeed or fail.  “Breezeblocks” and “Something Good” still stick out a decade on because they build, progress, cultivate a sense of earned drama and don’t shirk a hook.  “Hunger of the Pine,” meanwhile, relies on the shock of an incongruous Miley Cyrus sample rather than doing anything interesting in its own right.  They’re not pop enough to be James Blake, not weird enough to be Bon Iver, not committed enough to be Everything Everything, and certainly not interesting enough to be In Rainbows-era Radiohead like they desperately want to be – and which I also want them to be, for the record; more bands could do with trying to ape latter-day Radiohead.

The good news, then: The Dream, alt-J’s first new album since 2017’s somnambulant RELAXER, is their best since An Awesome Wave.  Admittedly, this is due to a severely lowered bar more than anything.  Unlike both This is All Yours and RELAXER, I can actually hum more than one song off the top of my head when the album is not playing, and nor are five minutes of The Dream given over to the most lifeless “House of the Rising Sun” cover perhaps ever put to tape.

Lead single “U&ME” has by far the best hook this trio have concocted in almost a decade, a circular sliding acoustic guitar line with slightly more muscle than one expects this kind of mid-tempo acoustic pop number to sport pairing up with a cavernous yet welcoming group chant of the “it’s just you and me now” refrain.  “Happier When You’re Gone” has a Maccabees-reminiscent cosiness with its interplay of warm guitars and ambient noise, albeit whilst the lyrics try to cast a break-up in very murderous terms.  “Chicago,” meanwhile, fakes out with another boilerplate indie folk opening before dropping out and restarting with an xx-y guitar ping and club throb of minor menace.  Even though the song never explodes like it really should, it’s still more captivating than most of what surrounds it on the track list and, when near-choral apocalyptic voices herald the ghostly lyrical turn, earns its attempt at drama.

Elsewhere, however, things aren’t so lucky.  Straight after “Chicago” is “Philadelphia,” which presupposes the problem with the ill-fitting sample on “Hunger of the Pine” was not its artificial effort to spice up undercooked songwriting but rather that it wasn’t operatic enough; hence a waltz harpsichord, the title being dropped via pitch-shifted sample, and what sounds like ice cream van music over the outro.  Despite my initial fears with the repeated chorus line of “gimme that gold straight into my hard drive,” “Hard Drive Gold” is not another thinly-veiled sex jam but instead a piss-take of crypto-miners, yet the blatant “Feel it Still” rip that makes up the music sounds exactly like something which would soundtrack a crypto ad in the near-future.

The band do seem to be aware of the repeated criticism that their songs in recent years are static as all hell despite often running on the cusp of five minutes.  But their solution for this problem turns out to be just bolting an entirely different song onto the intro of another one, rather than finding interesting chord arrangements and a sense of narrative or musical progression, which is just adding another issue onto the pile.  “Walk a Mile” begins with a minute of gospel doo-wop acapella, only to immediately abandon that thread and spend the remaining five-and-a-half minutes sullenly plodding along to the same bog-standard folksy-blues alt-J had mined to depletion on This is All Yours.  “Bane,” a song about Coca-Cola that even opens on a sample of an old cola ad, announces itself with rising strings and a choir declaring “I sold my soul” and right when it seems like a grand payoff is coming… all that drama dissipates and leaden hookless normal service is resumed.

It frustrates me that this band either still don’t know or keep actively resisting the desire to push their songwriting ideas into deeper, satisfying, adventurous avenues.  Most of the time, their tracks have the depth and lasting fulfilment of first-draft demos.  At best, a decent hook or slightly more inviting mood will worm its way in; at worst, they’ll pile gimmicks on top and pretend that’s the same thing as substance.  But what’s most galling is that alt-J are evidently capable of potentially scratching true greatness.

Take centrepiece “Get Better,” a moving narrative in which vocalist Joe Newman plays a widower looking back on the decline and recovery of his partner’s health before a tragic accident rips her away.  It’s specifically drawn – references to covers of Elliot Smith, a get-well card that “retired the life of one biro,” a spread that he can’t bring himself to get rid of cos it was her favourite – and vulnerably direct in a way this band arguably never has been…  And yet it fails to reach true transcendence because the song’s melody never changes, the acoustic guitar progression never develops, and it musically stays in place on one note for nearly six minutes whilst deigning to have more false endings that Return of the King.  I should be devastated at the concluding tape sample representing the protagonist’s dead wife, but because of musical inertia I’ve instead been furiously eyeballing the time-remaining bar.

At this point, I’m willing to throw my hands up and admit that alt-J just won’t do much for me.  They have their following, a pretty large and devoted one, who evidently enjoy and connect to what the band put out.  Furthermore, whilst I don’t love any part of The Dream, there’s not a single part of it I’d declare outright bad, either – aside from maybe “Philadelphia” but I’m more passively bewildered by the track than anything else, in all honesty.  Yet I just find them so aggressively mediocre, so resistant to real evolution or progress despite a decade in the game; in some respect, I’d argue they’ve regressed since they’re still yet to make anything which hits as effectively and flows as naturally as “Breezeblocks.”  I don’t get anything from their music.  No passion, no power, no spark, no excitement.

If you’re already an alt-J fan, you’ll probably love The Dream since it is definitely a step up from their past two records – and I mean that as wholly positive statement attempting to objectively see things from a fan’s perspective.  For me, though, the most interesting thing about alt-J unfortunately remains that Fleece parody from seven years ago.  I hope that one day this will no longer be the case.

The Dream is now available on CD, vinyl, digital and streaming from Canvasback and Infectious.

Callie Petch can’t remember was it a Friday night? Was it a Saturday night?

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