alt-J have returned from a two-year respite, and this time they bring with them a low-res tapestry of ember-fuelled slow burners. Named ‘Relaxer’, the record lives up to its title, an anaesthetising eight-track aural experience. The trio’s signature, folktronic sound is placed on the backburner, and what leads is a mix of redolent, cabin-fever creations – hymnal, with a touch of pastoral.
‘3WW’, a sensuous number bordering on shamanic, opens the LP, ripe with ritualistic and prayer-like devotion, riding a meditative, surging beat, Joe Newman’s and Unger Hamilton’s vocals hollow but sybaritic. Lyrically the duo, alongside Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell’s ethereal cameo, relay a night of passion under the stars, touching on the unknowingly caustic nature of love. It’s a piquant brew veering perilously close to inducing a trance.
Contrastingly, ‘In Cold Blood’, a nostalgic rush of algorithmic wordplay, unloads with undomesticated swagger, already the most alt-J-sounding track on offer, backed by an aggressive percussive backbone and grandiose guitars.
‘Relaxer’ is a vitrine in extremes. It makes no discernible sense to have the Spanish guitar, summer duskiness of the gorgeously dense closer ‘Pleader’, alongside the cold, drone-heavy ‘Deadcrush’, yet it functions because alt-J bookend each track with tenderness. Take ‘Last Year’, a show reel of Newman’s diary-like ruminations, intensified by the emotional interplay between Newman and guest vocalist Marika Hackman.
Additionally, the trio’s foray into strings – roping in the London Metropolitan Orchestra – fuses beautifully with the band’s circuit-board trickery, sonically veering into cinematic territory but always keeping things contemporary. Both ‘Adeline’ and a reworking of Woodie Guthrie’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’, could score arthouse films, packed with classical instrumentation and subsequent lush, symphonic textures.
In parts, alt-J give off the vibe they are tempered and diffident, but in actuality, their amalgam eccentricity is just as potent. Only now their output is mostly devoid of unnecessary posturing and superfluous interludes – thankfully dialling down on the faux-American pastiche that peppered their inconsistent Grammy-endorsed sophomore release ‘This Is All Yours’.
For such a compact LP, ‘Relaxer’ sure does pack in moments of confounding experimentation. It still plays like an alt-J album – disparate and enigmatic, wry and artful. Yet ‘Relaxer’ is best explored as a gaudy anthology of anomalous but charming tales, borne out of voyeuristic observations.
Three albums in, it’s admirable that the trio haven’t gone the way of their contemporaries, eschewing big production and big money. Instead they’ve created something quite distinct from their former work. In this regard, ‘Relaxer’ places them firmly back on track.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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