alt-J have always been a curious crossover phenomenon. A band named after a keyboard shortcut, their wonk-pop melodies match the cerebral against the gloriously simple. Deliriously awkward, the three-piece refuse to use a simple answer, continually side-stepping the expectations placed in their way.
‘The Dream’ is their first album project in five years, and it’s a work of impressive subtlety, one that refuses to hem in their pop impulses while also sketching out new pathways. If ‘Relaxer’ felt at times constrained in its creative energy, then ‘The Dream’ is more luxuriant – ideas are unpacked, the arrangements are broader, and the emotional pull more incisive.
Curiously Celtic opener ‘Bane’ sets the tone for their ambitions; a large-scale choral piece, its modal drone pivots between ornate lyricism and an effective use of constraint. Indeed, the first half of this LP finds alt-J at their most confident since Mercury winning debut ‘An Awesome Wave’; ‘U&ME’ is a radio-friendly ear-worm that retains its secrets on repeated plays, while ‘Hard Drive Gold’ is dynamic and upbeat, perhaps their most overtly fun moment in a long time.
Yet ‘The Dream’ swiftly broadens its focus. ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ carries a sting in its tale, the arrangement moving from dainty acute angles through to Interpol-esque gothic splendour. Mid-album highlight ‘Get Better’ is a wonderful rococo acoustic piece, a slice of heart on sleeve romanticism that purrs with attraction.
The pacing does, however, slacken off in the second half. ‘Chicago’ and ‘Philadelphia’ are neatly paired, two references to travel and life on the road amid a plethora on the record. Exemplifying the band’s increasing use of space – informed by those endless mid-west landscapes, perhaps – it doesn’t quite match up to the tightly defined pop aspects of the record’s opening salvo.
That said, there’s much to enjoy here. ‘Walk A Mile’ is lugubrious in its sonics, while ‘Losing My Mind’ is overwhelming in its depiction of dark, bleak, paranoid mindsets. Closing with the renewed simplicity of ‘Powders’, ‘The Dream’ is a record framed by fleeting glances and sleight-of-hand. A work of assured yet subtle transition, it re-engages with some of alt-J’s core tenets, while not being afraid to engage emotionally.
Words: Robin Murray
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