alt-J, Relaxer | Album Review
British indie-rock band alt-J returns with an intriguing, if flawed third studio album, ‘Relaxer.’ The band’s eclecticism knows no end on ‘Relaxer.’
Alt-J – a Mac command for a triangle (∆) as well as a critically acclaimed, British indie-rock band. Alt-J the band returns with its third studio album, Relaxer. When the word ‘relax’ comes to mind, one thinks about chillin’… “like a villain” if you will. While Relaxer has its share of relaxed moments, stylistically, there’s little relaxing about shifts and various ideas. Relaxer is an intriguing album, but not without its flaws.
“3WW” kicks off Relaxer splendidly. It’s not every day a song receives such an odd title, which ultimately stands for three worn words. The sound has a folksy, pleasing quality, which sets the tone for the album. The lyrics are poetic, with great vocal performances from members Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman, as well as guest contributions from Ellie Rowsell. “3WW” encompasses love and sex. Ultimately, the love is only temporary:
“Well that smell of sex / Good like burning wood / The wayward lad lay claim / to two thirsty girls from Hornsea / Who left a note when dawn came.”
“In Cold Blood” continues the fast start for Relaxer. Accelerating the tempo, “In Cold Blood” contrasts the folksy, indie balladry of “3WW.” The sound palette is sharper, grittier, and more robust in quality. This fun, deadly record centers around “Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool summer / Kiss me.” Sure, using binary code to commence a song lyrically doesn’t sound like your typical good time, but it’s one of the quirks that makes “In Cold Blood” special. Clever wordplay and trying to interpret the record make it a surefire gem.
“Hit Me Like that Snare”
Things begin to take a turn beginning with “House of the Rising Sun.” This is partially a cover of the beloved The Animals’ classic, but it has been essentially reinvented. This is always a risk because naturally, comparisons will always be made to the original or definitive version. Does the alt-J take on “House of the Rising Sun” supplant the original? By no means.
Alt-J deserves credit for the concept of “Hit Me Like that Snare.” This number is brimmed with energy, and there’s ample swagger. Clearly, “Hit Me Like that Snare” has sex written all over it. On the first verse, Newman sings:
“I’m f*cking loose, you’re gorgeous, I don’t care / Come closer, baby, slap me like that snare.”
Ultimately, the record is over the top. Even the suggestive moments are nasty to say the least. At the end, Newman continues to flex the unapologetic lustfulness, bitingly singing:
“We are dangerous teenagers / We are dangerous teenagers / F*ck you, I’ll do what I want to do.”
Following the oversexed “Hit Me Like that Snare,” alt-J once more switch up the sound of Relaxer. “Deadcrush” is by far the most contemporary-sounding record of the album. Here, it sounds as if the band is trying to incorporate hip-hop sensibilities – in the most alternative way possible. Perhaps odder than the sound is the subject matter – literally, dead crushes! The dead crushes are photographer Lee Miller and, taking it even further back, Anne Boleyn. A verse is dedicated to each, describing how their historical suitor felt about each. In regards to Miller, alt-J states, “Man Ray went cray cray over you.” In regards to Boleyn, well, “Henry Tudor left you lifeless.”
“Adeline” eschews electronics, favoring the folksy quality that made opener “3WW” a resounding success. Arguably, “Adeline” isn’t quite as intriguing as the one-two punch of “3WW” and “In Cold Blood,” but ultimately, it’s beautiful. Hard to knock the band’s ambition and cleverness:
“Ooh, my Adeline, ooh / Down in Tasmania / Where the devil’s jaws are far too weak / To tear you away.”
Yes, alt-J confirm that the song is about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman. Wow – just wow.
“Last Year” is nearly the equal of “Adeline” in regards to radiance, but initially lacks excitement and thrills. The first verse depicts the last year, month by month, including the most notable line, “December, you sang at my funeral.” The funeral song follows on verse two, performed by Marika Hackman. It contrasts the first verse but remains sad. The main rub with “Last Year” is that it’s boring, particular following the slow paced “Adeline.”
“Pleader” concludes Relaxer with promise. The problem is, that it’s also flawed. While the ending reaches the desired arrival point, the beginning of the song takes a bit too long to develop. Essentially, the means to the ends – the build-up – is questionable. Ultimately, “Pleader” gets there though.
All in all, there are plenty of great musical moments throughout the course of Relaxer. That said, it is imperfect, due to its randomness and scattered nature. Alt-J is a restless band, which is both a blessing and a curse. The eclecticism is a pro more often than not, but at times, the innovative British darlings overindulge.
Gems: “3WW,” “In Cold Blood” & “Adeline”