Tuesday, September 30, 2014 by Hunter Johns
In my station of life, I’m hardly ever truly scared of anything. Maybe a loud noise at night brings back a childhood fear of the dark, or, god forbid, I can’t find my phone; for the most part, I lead a blessedly safe life. alt-J, however, scares the living crap out of me.
Their first and previous album, “An Awesome Wave”, was one of the best albums of 2012. Every single song on the album was memorable; the bizarre lyrics of “Fitzpleasure”, the haunting harmonies of “Breezeblocks”, and the manic chill of “Tessellate” come to mind. Each song was a carefully crafted exercise in all the dark emotions of the human psyche, from horror to heartbreak to whatever “Fitzpleasure” was about, and each succeeded in evoking some odd emotion in me. The band won the Mercury Prize for An Awesome Wave, and rightfully so. But as good as the album was, to me it was the music videos that made the musical statement whole. “Fitzpleasure”’s video featured a cast of characters all of whom had something wrong with them, be it a tongue instead of a right eye or fingers that seem to bend all the way backwards. The video for “Breezeblocks” retraces a husband and wife fighting in their apartment, with as far from a happy ending as their can possibly be. Both videos affected me enough so that I still think about them sometimes, even just to marvel at the emotional and aesthetical choices that the band made in making these videos.
Needless to say, I was excited for alt-J’s new album “This is All Yours,” and in the end, I’m a little disappointed. The record starts with a quasi-overture, and then progresses to a guitar and piano piece in “Arrival In Nara.” For a little while the song verges on slipping into forgettable, with what sounds like the chord progressions Coldplay used to use and have now discarded. The track becomes a real alt-J song again eventually, but the damage has been done. The next track, “Nara”, plays like prog-rock, a direction I wouldn’t have guessed alt-J to have taken. Finally, “Every Other Freckle”, the subsequent track, sounds like the alt-J from An Awesome Wave, maybe better. The song’s animalistic, maybe cannibalistic theme is echoed in both the production and the music video, and makes for a genuine alt-J song.
“Left Hand Free” is easily the biggest letdown for me on the record. For one, it sounds almost exactly like a Black Keys song; the Black Keys do the Black Keys well, but alt-J doing the Black Keys makes alt-J sound uncomfortable. The song is obviously made for radio, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m going to hear those forced blues chords over an “edgy” montage of teenagers/twenty-somethings in industrial buildings really psyched to have unlimited mobile data. (A note to T-Mobile: why industrial buildings? Who told you we hang out in industrial buildings?) I guess this would be a perfectly fine, middle of the road song if I didn’t know what the band was capable of, but I do, and I’d like more than this.
The rest of the album didn’t raise my ire like “Left Hand Free”; “Hunger of the Pine”, the other single, is more true to the alt-J style, and even samples Miley Cyrus (“I’m a demon rebel,” her disembodied voice yells). “Bloodflood pt. II” references both “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood” from An Awesome Wave, which I think is a nice touch, but someone who thinks it’s hopelessly pretentious to reference a song you’ve written wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
I wish I was scared of This Is All Yours. I didn’t end up being scared at all; I feel downright sleepy. The videos for the new album might actually top the set from An Awesome Wave in terms of disturbing. (Do not watch the “Hunger of the Pines” video unless, I don’t know, you hunt people for sport or something and that sort of thing doesn’t bother you. I’m not kidding. Don’t be angry at me, be angry at alt-J.) My impression of the band right now is that they’ve lost the conflict or perversion in the hearts that made their last album so weird and memorable. Somebody show alt-J a scary movie; we need the scary alt-J back.
Hunter Johns is a new Lightning Rod staff member writing about music and film. His album reviews are published Tuesdays.