Alt-J are a much stealthier band than they’ve often been given credit for. To many they were (and are) a Coldplay sort of thing. A middle class group of white men who play particularly well in America. A band who excel in that forever increasingly unfashionable corner of pop music – ‘ballads’. Soppy bastards. People get married to these songs, for god sake.
There’s some truth in there. Alt-J play extremely well in the States, in venues like Madison Square Garden, the Staples Centre and the Hollywood Bowl. They’re definitely white men, although a third of the band is a working class northerner. I’ll give you the ballads too – alt-J’s music is not fast. And yes, people do get married to these songs. A lot. I’ve always wondered about that: just how closely have people been listening to what these tracks are about? They do often sound first-dance lovely, but for a band that has managed to sell millions of albums (in the age of streaming, no less), alt-J have been obsessed with death and sex in their most unsavoury extremes since they arrived in 2011. Brides and grooms have waltzed to ‘Matilda’ ever since – a track inspired by Léon, a film about teaching a kid to become an assassin, featuring the line “Put the grenade pin in your hand, so you understand who’s boss” just as the rest of the wedding party takes to the floor. Soft stuff compared to the ‘Matilda’’s B-side, ‘Fitzpleasure’ – a retelling of a particularly horrible Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. story that graphically depicts a scene of gang rape and murder. Coldplay sing about the stars looking yellow.
Singer and lyricist Joe Newman’s fascination with our dark world has persisted, and on The Dream – the band’s forth album, following 2017’s extra short but impressively strange Relaxer – he doubles down, having spent lockdown obsessing over true crime podcasts. Typically for the band, ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ can scan as a breakup song to make you feel better about things, but if you’re willing to listen a little more closely (and pick through the clues… and perhaps join an alt-J fan group – Newman’s lyrics are often very open), you’ll find a song about domestic abuse and murder; the antithesis of Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, told from the point of view of Joe’s “old lady”, who confronts her abuser, burns and buries him. Musically, it gently rolls along in an almost country rock fashion, from it’s opening line, “‘Joe, only fuck ups need clean starts,’ I scream as you come my way.”
On single ‘The Actor’, the band deftly explore the sound of blissed-out yacht rock – the perfect choice for a reimagining of the lead up to John Belushi’s fatal overdose at LA’s Chateau Marmont in 1982. ‘Losing My Mind’ is then part Bon Iver, part static-filled slowcore, about a father who’s led to believe that his son was murdered by a serial killer.
It’s not sounding a laugh a minute, is it? But this has always been alt-J’s way – you can go as deep as you choose too. Although not on ‘Get Better’ – the most direct song here, and The Dream’s toughest listen because of it. Little more than Newman and an acoustic guitar, it’s the simple story of a person later on in life caring for and losing a loved one over a prolonged period of time, and the aftermath of adapting to a life alone. It’s incredibly sad, and impossible to misinterpret. A beautiful song that I will try to avoid from now on.
For more of a laugh, you need to head straight to a song like the opening, excellent ‘Bane’. A track about Coca-Cola that veers from Pink Floyd to Kanye to the band’s own signature choral sound, it sets out the broad sonics that make up The Dream – a record that sounds like it’s peppered with strange samples but impressively consists only of original material, from skateboard scrapes to a band member’s mum contributing via Whatsapp the voicenote “Scum!”.
Other good times come from the totally groovy surf pop single ‘Hard Drive Gold’ (a tongue-in-cheek takedown of cryptocurrency – the record’s ‘Left Hand Free’) and holiday jam ‘U&ME’ (no hidden agendas here – it’s a dappled groove about having fun). Or the surprising two-parter ‘Chicago’, which turns from a finger picked lullaby to a thrumming nearly-techno track, and the following, string-laden ‘Philadelphia’, with its operatic single-word hook and Canterbury prog breakdowns that make it a highpoint on an album full of them. It’s also The Dream in a nutshell – an album so full of ideas and left-turns that it should bury the “Coldplay sort of thing” once and for all. Only one band will have arena crowds dirty dancing to a chorus of “Why do to I keep on returning to you? Cocaine” this year. The perfect time to drop to one knee and propose.
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This month’s disc is from Detroit punk band Protomartyr