The difficult third album? Most people in the world seem to think so. For things are somewhat different here. When the whole world broke out in jubilation over alt-J's first album, I was left behind in wonder. What am I hearing? I did and up to a certain extent still do not hear what makes 'An Awesome Wave' so good. At best I've learned to listen to it. It was with the second album that I totally fell for the band. 'This Is All Yours' by now is one of my favourite albums ever and played so much all through 2015 and 2016. My first, new vinyl album since the late 80s. So I was rather looking forward to the new album. And less "afraid" as I do not have to compare it to that grandiose first album.
My first impression while listening is that RELAXER is an adequate title for the album. The mood is very laidback in several songs. Almost a modern version of medieval church music. So solemn and tranquil. At the same time a lot of things are going on which were beyond imagination only a few decades if not years ago. The three musicians of alt-J combine instruments and sounds that simply did not exist at the time or combine them in new ways, making its music fairly unique.
On RELAXER the past and the future meet in the here and now. Several songs hold much more traditional instruments or at least more obviously than before. It is in the singing that the future comes in. It's almost as if robots are singing for us. And behind that all the electronics come in. Sounds, soundscapes. weird melodies that jump around and impede on tradition. Together it all makes up the fabric of what alt-J is.
'3WW' is the opening song. I hear an acoustic guitar play just sparse notes. Around and behind it forms of (electronic) percussion plays, sounds, mystique. If taken at just face value, nothing happens here. When emotions are allowed in, '3WW' is a perfect opening song for Relaxer. That Medieval feeling is in the singing. The song builds on what went before, but also is more minimal. There's simply nothing extra in '3WW'. Not even in the title. It could have dropped one W, but that's all. Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice can be heard further on in the song, adding something really extra to it.
'In Cold Blood' is more alt-J of old, but again it is not. Horns enter the picture. It is the rhythm that is familiar and Joe Newman's voice of course. There's nothing like it in modern rock. All things are binary these days. Like the way Spotify sends this music to me. Joe Newman sings the digital in his robotlike voice, ones and zeros.
'In Cold Blood' is the most famous book by the late Truman Capote. On RELAXER it becomes one of alt-J's anthems. Puffed up, large and pumping in that weird way that sets this band apart from nearly all others. Making it far larger than most of the songs around it.
The weirdest song and most surprising one on the album is the ages old 'House Of The Rising Sun'. Made famous by The Animals in 1964 and rocked out loud by Frijid Pink in 1970. Now the song gets the full alt-J treatment. Why? Is that a relevant question? Not really. The song is changed almost beyond recognition and gets a new rendition.
By then I know that RELAXER is not going to have the impact 'This Is All Yours' had on me, but then how can it? RELAXER is the new alt-J and has the sounds, the changes, the moves that I want it to have. So it's not a masterpiece, but it is an album that I'm going to have a lot of fun with for quite some time. At the first instance it will be the newest vinyl in this home. No doubt there.
What this album does, is trigger my imagination, It makes me listen to all that is going on, all the sounds hiding somewhere. All these little extras. The big strings that move in. Weirdness, normality, sanctity, fiendish, keeping close and expulsion. It's all in the collection of 8 songs that make up RELAXER. alt-J has moved beyond what is has been before. There's familiarity but also a new mood that spans centuries. And capping that is what makes RELAXER a triumph. How this is going to be played live, is beyond me, having seen the trio with its hired bassist in 2015. Sort of impossible.
'Last year' features Marika Hackman on lead vocals. Another of these songs that just slowly move along, like the water flowing tranquilly in the smallest and slowest of brooks. While the song references (the mighty) Mississippi. A very nice difference.
RELAXER goes out with a near classical composition. As relaxed as the title, until the weirdness is let in. A little like 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!' The music starts twirling around my head, spinning me around. A whole choir enters the whole. An orchestra and a choir that never met, the one recorded in Abbey Road, the other in a cathedral in Ely. Majestic 'Pleader' becomes a great ending to what is a great album. alt-J has done it again. Surprised me and conquered me.
You can listen to '3WW' here: