Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Alt-J take us on a Prog-Rock ‘Dream’ with their latest record

Alt-J are back making prog-rock for the indie-loving masses. They’ve concocted their fourth album ‘The Dream’ with a mixture of recognisable characteristics – concept-driven lyrics, art-house stylings and clever, self-amusing musicality. Their songs always appear in transit, never resting still and continuously moving between formalism and eclecticism. 

The band — composed of lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and drummer Thom Sonny Green — have always tried to break boundaries with their genre-defying stunts. They have a penchant for bouncing between three-to-four musical styles per song, littered with stream-of-conscious storytelling and pop-like cultural analogies. 


You know an Alt-J track when you hear one. There’s a familiar texture to them – a sensation which is hard to pinpoint. This mosaic-like way of songwriting is apparent in ‘The Dream’ – as it covers themes of love, happiness, death, and betrayal. That said, this album is one of the most grounded and open-hearted of their discography.


It starts with the cracking-open of a cold one, with the hissing sound of a fresh Coca-Cola can. ‘Bane’ is an experimental and striking tribute to drinking the aforementioned “ice cold black fuel”. There’s a delightful balance between playful and rock-heavy tones. The layered percussion and choral harmonies are beautiful in their execution.


Fans of the band’s genre-bending experimentation will not be disappointed. ‘Philadelphia’ is filled with an operatic arrangement of Baroque pop. ‘Chicago’ is a synth-kissed choral apparition, struggling between anxiety-inducing musical tension and soothing layered vocals. ‘Walk a Mile’ starts as a folk-bar song, before building into a barbershop harmony which climaxes into an arena-filling rock album. While ‘Delta’ shocks with a gospel-inspired interlude. 


Closing track ‘Powders’ has a sound which verges on blues, accompanied with a clean-cut guitar solo. The track fulfils one of those beautiful niches in music – opening with the band talking in the studio before the song was recorded. Its full of youthful reminiscence, such as the joy of a “Free house / greatest two words to hear at sixteen”. The track is carried along by a strumming baseline and refrain “I’m your man”. Its an epiphany of sorts – a feeling that’s revisited constantly throughout the album. 


If there’s one track that best shows this lyrical and musical formula its ‘Get Better’. Grounded by a twisting acoustic centre its flavoured with poignant poeticism – with opaque specifics and a warming familiarity . Newman, in a recent interview with NME, described it as “emotionally the most honest song I’ve written”. The band confront the personal on this album, with the pain feeling secretive, raw, and tangible. 


It’s innately contemporary  – with several references to the coronavirus pandemic. Newman laments the death of a loved one, accompanied by a delicate, gentle guitar. It’s a uniquely unembellished arrangement, which leaves room for the tragedy of the lyrics and vocals. Even in its simplicity we see a journey through desperation and longing with the line “I still pretend you’re only out of sight / In another room, smiling at your phone”.


This is not to say that realistic lyrics squash the bands penchant for unexpected absurdity. In the poppy debut single ‘U&ME’, Alt-J do one of their renowned name checks with “strut like Stellan Skarsgård”. It’s a generous and optimistic track – you can almost hear a smile on the other end of the recording. It’s a pure example of the bands newfound happy place.


Alt-J have returned with a bang. Their feet are firmly planted on the familiar steady ground of experimentation and abstract lyrics, yet, there’s a newfound sensitivity to their music that’s a delight to hear. 


Maia Gibbs


Image: Alt-J ‘The Dream’ Official Album Cover

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment Here;