Almost exactly midway through ‘Relaxer’, at the culmination of primal, yelping highlight ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, the instrumentation cuts out, leaving the three members of alt-J chanting its repeated final refrain: “Fuck you / I’ll do what I wanna do”. Not just a defiant call to arms, it feels like the motto the band have quietly been muttering their entire careers. Impossible to pigeonhole and resolutely determined to beat to their own drum, alt-J have been pulling the rug from under the established mainstream path since the beginning. Hell, they’ve single-handedly brought the archaic musical round (separate voices starting the same phrase at different times and pitches) from the classroom songbook into the charts. And on album three, they’re on even more singular form than ever.
If a modern band of their festival-headlining size have pulled as ballsy and weird a move as opener ‘3WW’ in recent years, then we’re yet to hear it. With the world’s ears awaiting their return, the trio opt to open their third record with a track seemingly lifted straight out of the 18th Century. The first voice we hear on the record isn’t singer Joe Newman, but keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, intoning about “a wayward lad” like a feather-capped minstrel telling us the tales of yore. All he’s missing is a lute.
‘In Cold Blood’ finds Newman spitting out the “0”s and “1”s of the computer binary code before throwing in some crunching beats, trademark “la la la la la la”s and oblique lyrical webs about swimming pools. It’s alt-J at their most alt-J and it’s marvellous. Then comes a slow, mournful cover of The Animals’ ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, backed by twenty, fluttering classical guitarists, just to slap your wrists for thinking you had them pegged.
‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is like ‘The Monster Mash’ as reimagined by Radiohead; ‘Deadcrush’ opens on undulating beats and breathy pants before unravelling into a writhing, snaky, sexy thing that could happily soundtrack any of 50 Shades’ more leather-based scenes; ‘Adeline’ is stripped and fragile, before cloaking itself in layers of strings. By the time we reach the Marika Hackman-featuring acoustic lullaby of ‘Last Year’ and the tumultuous, theatrical crescendo of ‘Pleader’, alt-J have covered more bases in eight songs that most could do in an entire ‘Best Of’.
On ‘Relaxer’, alt-J sound utterly, wonderfully like no one but themselves. If there’s a slew of imitators (comedic or otherwise) reaching for a piece of the pie, it’s only because the trio have crafted possibly the most strangely original niche in modern music. ‘Relaxer’ could be an ‘Into The Woods’-style musical soundtrack, or a concept album around a pagan ritual. What’s more ridiculous is that a record as beguilingly odd as this is actually just a regular release from a major artist.
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Handing out the keys to third album ‘Relaxer’, alt-J have roped in a host of hip hop’s great and good to whittle their work into something new.