REVIEW: alt-J – RELAXER

Back in March, English indie-rock band alt-J cryptically uploaded a short, obscure LSD-tripping video on YouTube. Featuring a mysterious binary caption and an electronic-infused instrumental of percussion and strings, the world collectively asked “what the fuck are alt-J up to?” The video-snippet was revealed to be ‘3WW’, the quirky first single from the trio’s third album, RELAXER. The track supposedly introduced a progressive new soundscape for the group. It’s what we’ve come to expect from alt-J – throwing a curveball just as some thought they’d understood the trio. However, even the band themselves seem uncertain of the musical direction they are taking with RELAXER, as the record explores the downright weird to a slow-burning funeral eulogy.

RELAXER can be split between three styles. The album begins in cinematic fashion with ‘3WW’, which can be paired with RELAXER closer ‘Pleader’, a church choir chant. Then there’s the upbeat songs, the organ-anthem ‘In Cold Blood’, the hip-hop influenced ‘Deadcrush’ and the cringe-worthy ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. Contrastingly, alt-J throw in the slow-burning symphonic numbers in ‘Adeline’, ‘Last Year’ and their partial cover of the folk classic ‘House of the Rising Sun’. The three variations would work well if they weren’t so badly jumbled throughout RELAXER. One of the softest songs of the record, ‘House of the Rising Sun’, is wedged between the two most energetic tunes, ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. As a result, the album struggles to gather any flow, rather jumping back and forth between the three alt-J styles evident on the record.

The flow would be far more successful if alt-J stuck to their most dominant genre – folk. In an interview with NPR, alt-J stated that “[they] have always seen [themselves] as a bit of a folk band.” Their folk roots are signified on RELAXER by their altered version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, “thus continuing the folk process of taking a song, changing it and passing it on.” If RELAXER was solely a folk album, there wouldn’t be any issues. However, alt-J stray away from folk in an attempt to progress their music. An attempt that proves to be largely inconsistent and ineffective.

The trio seem unsure of their identity with the attempted progression. Previously, alt-J have presented themselves as shy and unassuming. On RELAXER, the band try their hand at being more confident and humorous, particularly on the BDSM-inspired ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. This effort hugely backfires, summed up in one line of the song: “This is my family fisting me on the floor”. With this track in mind, it’s clear alt-J are far more at home honing their folk dynamic in the vein of ‘3WW’, rather than pushing beyond their own boundaries.

For an established band like alt-J, expectations are always going to be set high. The three singles released prior to the album’s release, ‘3WW’, ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Adeline’, all raised the bar. But, the lofty expectations were not met. RELAXER is by no means a failure. The album produces many good moments. These moments would just be far more rewarding as stand-alone songs, rather than on a single album. As a result, RELAXER sounds more like a collection of tracks than a succinct record, wandering through half-baked ideas and lacking consistency overall. 

Rating: 6 BDSM nightmares/10

Highlight: ‘Deadcrush’

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