Friday, February 11, 2022

Review: The Dream • alt-J

Sometimes it feels like alt-J are just fucking around, doesn’t it? The English alternative rock group writes music with enough predictability to be nailed down in one viral video, yet every album delivers something unexpected: Joe Newman’s pinched tenor crunches into even more uncomfortable spaces, new disruptions enter from every corner of the mix, and lyrics make further creative liberties in their continual self-parody. And with this unwavering mission, the band lays out a framework for their fourth studio record, The Dream  which might just be the most important addition to the band's discography since 2012's An Awesome Wave.

It’s easy to think alt-J is at their best when they don’t mean much by their mangled lines: A meandering little number about a drug trip (“U&ME”) or an ode to cryptocurrency gamblers (“Hard Drive Gold”) are delivered with an understood wink – yeah, they’re writing about it in strange, almost unidentifiable metaphors, and yeah, we’re listening to every word of it. Ridiculousness at its finest, isn’t it? But then a statement like “Get Better” comes along – and it’s an absolutely crushing portrait of a grieving man. “I still pretend you’re only out of sight, in another room, smiling at your phone,” Newman repeats across the back end of the song. In a sobering moment, reality shakes the band’s bedrock. It all makes sense again: These guys really aren’t fucking with us.

The album is founded on style and scandal, splattering out uncomfortable stories of despair and emotional unraveling – sometimes intricate and palpable, and other times fictionalized past belief – while allowing the primal and the ornate to meet in alternative rock music. What begins as one strum of a sizzling guitar spirals into withdrawal-induced cocaine hysteria on “The Actor,” while “Philadelphia” is a medieval retelling of a man’s dying moments. On "Chicago," an unexpected house influence beats beneath a fatal Jack & Jill scenario. (If you couldn't tell, the inevitable threat of death weighs heavy on the minds of the trio.) Yet even when the album leans into melody over extraneous flair, its message is clear: There cannot be The Dream without the nightmare… even when it sounds like a dream.

The Dream is available now under Canvasback Music and Atlantic Records.

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