alt-J’s Relaxer is a weirdly wonderful head-scratcher

RelaxerThe tears flow as alt-J’s “3WW” plays through to its delicate, wistful end. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for the classic piano love song, and this track, with its scratched strings and vocal droplets provided by Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, has been setting me off since its release earlier this year.  It’s taken from alt-J’s much anticipated and highly guarded third album Relaxer. And having wiped the tears away from the opening track, I have to say it's a bit of a head-scratcher.

Let’s start with the stuff we do know: Relaxer is an album put together by and for the internet generation. Not surprising, given that alt-J were born of the internet back in 2007, and have since gone on to sell more than two million albums thanks to an award-winning formula of melody + guitars + computer jiggery-pokery.

But whereas alt-J’s previous albums such as This Is All Yours have been a series of complex melodies that captured the euphonic zeitgeist, Relaxer (“3WW” aside) is a 40-minute agrarian prog mish-mash, complete with Hammer Horror sound effects, police sirens, and weird historical references. It’s as surprising as indulgent; if you’re looking for a ride on the psych train, then all aboard, because Relaxer is one hell of a ride.

“In Cold Blood” might be a song about coding, or something completely different. I don’t know and I'm not sure it matters - the point is that the juxtaposition of a refrain built around numbers chanted with mechanical indifference, a big band sound complete with oompah, and frenetic organ music just makes something memorable and fun. It’s endearingly oddball.

As is the rest of the album, and it only gets weirder. “Hit Me Like That Snare” didn’t quite make it into Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is a shame because Tim Curry could have pulled it off with aplomb. “Deadcrush” is a late night nuisance call, “Pleader” a symphonic skip through a Celtic land of Morris men and miners. If you haven’t heard the album yet, this will sound like self-indulgent literary nonsense. If you have then you will know this is self-indulgent literary nonsense and embrace it with both hands.

Only “Adeline” bears any resemblance to the alt-J that was, another British band billed as the next Radiohead. I could just about buy that on the strength of this one track, with its achingly beautiful riffs that shimmer like A Moon Shaped Pool.

So Relaxer isn’t alt-J as we know it, and that might be a disappointment to some of their millions of mainstream fans. But from the start of their career, the lads from Leeds have gone out of their way to be different, with their un-googleable name and obscured press shots. So perhaps this isn’t such an unfathomable album after all. Perhaps it’s just an extension of the tension, intrigue, and genius of the first two albums, a more developed obscurity borne out of the band being that little bit more confident and ready to take risks. After all, David Bowie once made a song about a laughing gnome.

Don’t listen to Relaxer then if you want to listen to alt-J, listen to An Awesome Wave instead. Listen to Relaxer if you want to find something different, want to expand your mind; to imagine what it would be like if music required no Stock, Aitken and Waterman formula, and sounds could just hang together because that’s where they were strung. Simple. Weird. Try it.

Release: 2nd June 2017, Infectious Music

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