Album Review: Alt-J’s This Is All Yours
In the past year, no band has quite turned the industry on its head like British art rockers Alt-J (∆). A meteoric rise to hipster stardom off the back of debut album An Awesome Wave saw the band garner worldwide critical acclaim, a Mercury Prize gong and the notorious, ill-fated title of being the ‘next Radiohead’.
Yet the glitz and glam took its toll on the band, as earlier this year guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury left the band in midst of recording an album engulfed in anticipation and pressure to create another record that was artistically exceptional and easily esteemed by the masses.
Unfortunately it’s explicitly evident that the burden of this expectation has submerged Alt-J with the release of second album This is All Yours.
Alt-J’s nonsensical and mythical sound is the cornerstone of their utterly unique image that has transcended the band to becoming to poster boys for art rock. Alt-J has come to relish this, and what’s painfully clear on This is All Yours, to rely on it. Where their eerie nature and absurdist character was part of a larger equilibrium on An Awesome Wave, it has become the uncomfortable focal point of their second album.
Simply put, Alt-J is milking their individuality for all it’s worth, and you can’t help but empathise with the fact that this is because it’s what their audience expects.
In perhaps an unintended way, lead single ‘Hunger of the Pine’ sets the standard for the entire record. Parts of the song are strikingly thought provoking and yes to a certain extent the now infamous Miley Cyrus sample works. Well except for the fact “I’m a female rebel” is completely out of context to the rest of the song.
But it translates far more clearly that this sample is an attempt by Alt-J to show off how avant-garde they are, instead of adding the soundbite for what should be intensive purpose in increasing the artistic quality of the tune itself. This pattern of being intentionally uncanny just for the sake of it is constantly soaked throughout the record.
Furthermore, An Awesome Wave captured attention due to the merit of song writing persistent throughout the record. For all the grandiose orchestral melodies, distinctively Alt-J harmonised vocals, having fantastical aura and polish on these songs doesn’t change the fact that at their core, many of these songs are just lacking any sense of exciting progression. This is only to be mixed with the sense that all the extravagance that coat these songs are just there as an effort to push boundaries merely for the sake of it.
The creepily erotic ‘Every Other Freckle’ is the perfect example of an intrinsically peculiar Alt J song that is meant to provoke but all in all, it really doesn’t. All that happens is that ‘Every Other Freckle’ joins much of this album in a musical vacuum that contains a vast array of colourful sounds that wield little direction.
However let’s not sell all our shares on the Alt-J train just yet. This album is distinctively Alt-J. You’d hope so, given how hard they’ve tried to be such a thing. The iconic vocals and choral harmonies, melodic instrumentation and bombastic drumming is present in spades. At it’s best, we’re reminded of Alt-J’s gorgeous sense of pure musicality.
Therefore, the strongest elements of This is All Yours, without any doubt, is when Alt J focus on interconnecting the beautiful simplicity of their craft, rather than over complicating their sound, just to appear edgy. The astounding trifecta of ‘Warm Foothills’, ‘Gospel of John Hurt’ and ‘Pusher’ is Alt-J at their most vulnerable and simultaneously Alt-J doing what Alt-J does best. This charming and eloquent sonic exploration only makes the remainder of the album look to be uncomfortably forced by contrast with the exception of ‘Left Hand Free’.
This swamp-trap blues riff is a perfect example that Alt-J don’t have to be genre bending surrealists to be sonically superior. In the context of an album that surrounds itself on harmonic, mystic and supernatural elements, the relatively simplistic nature of ‘Left Hand Free’ cuts through sharp and precise. Most importantly, it grabs and holds focus tightly throughout the array of progressions it goes through in a small amount of time.
Through looking at this album as a whole, yes it is a somewhat progressive and inventive record throughout and is truthfully sonically singular to anything else being produced. Maybe that’s enough for Alt-J and their hordes of fans, but it’s unavoidable to the fact that it looks as if Alt-J have succumbed to the pressure of being ‘distinctively Alt-J’ as their first priority and it’s simply translating to obligatory imitations of what they’re truly capable of.
Only when Alt-J strip their sound to its most forthright and authentic level does the genuine overly talented Alt- J emerge. Yet these handful of beautiful moments are not enough for This is All Yours to escape the overarching feeling that Alt J constantly want to push themselves (or are being pushed) to be needlessly ahead of this ever-progressive curve. It unfortunately appears that they are losing under the pace of their own steps.
In short, we’ve left this album feeling as conflicted as Alt-J seem to feel.