Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Relaxer | alt-J

English three-piece alternative outfit alt-J has never been anything less than a bit unhinged. They came into fame via disjointed soundscapes with hidden agendas: On An Awesome Wave, lead vocalist Joe Newman glazed through stories of love triangles and murders with slurred, hypnotizing diction. Their follow-up, This is All Yours, fussed over songwriting so unorthodox that it took over a year of repeated listens before its musicality revealed itself. Their work was calculated to pinch a nerve with absurdist themes and use its alluring soundscapes to soothe over the pain immediately.

The trio's third album, meanwhile, doesn't concern itself with much, standing stagnant as the world moves around it. At just shy of 40 minutes in run time, it disguises itself as a short escape... that is, until listeners dive into it head first and realize that five of its eight tracks clock in at five-plus minutes. And those five tracks take their dear, sweet time to get a hell of a lot of, well, nowhere, but that isn't necessarily a damning point in alt-J's case – especially as they deliver an album titled Relaxer.

Given its title and visual treatments, which come courtesy of a first-generation PlayStation game that replicates surreal, LCD-influenced dreams in chunky pixels, Relaxer is exactly as it markets itself: a record more concerned with its indie-static vibe than its inspirations, which are more benignly cockeyed than its predecessors' backstories. Tracks like "Adeline," a Hans Zimmer-sampling cut about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a human woman, and album finale "Pleader" spiral into cinematic instrumental scores that leave just enough space to mold Newman's warbles and moans into the equation.

On standout track and lead single "3WW," a fuzzy guitar loop plays like a flickering candle under Newman as he melts under Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell. And if "3WW" is the embodiment of the album's mission, "In Cold Blood" and "Hit Me Like a Snare" are its antitheses: the former, a jolting anthem that speaks in numeric code, and the latter, frankly the most obnoxious of any alt-J offering. "We are dangerous teenagers. Fuck you. I'll do whatever I want to do," Newman shouts with kiddish happiness on "Snare," breaking his usual cool demeanor in the most uncool way he could dream up.

The alt-J of years past was a bit more inspired and a bit less tired than the one we hear today. Relaxer serves its purpose in their discography, especially in its more glistening moments ("3WW," "In Cold Blood," "Adeline"), but when the record lags in its monstrous run time, it wears far too thin for even remote comfort ("Hit Me Like a Snare," "Deadcrush"). That's not to say that the alt-J guys have lost their appeal, but they do seem a bit less commanding than they were when we last saw them – a fact that becomes obvious only when they make us endure those long moments of friction within an album that was meant to be a smooth ride.

Relaxer is out now under Atlantic Records.

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