Review: Alt-J – “The Dream”

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“THE DREAM” by Alt-J (Release Date: 11.02.22) 9/10

Alt-J are back with their fourth full length LP, “The Dream”. It felt to us that Alt-J fell out of the sky in 2011, armed with a sound that was so viscerally unique yet somehow so familiar. They had created a magic formula of interesting, and intelligent Indie-Pop that unsurprisingly garnered huge accolade and admiration. But as ever, immediate success and maturity in any field magnetises criticism and aversion amongst the peripheries. 

This band arrived with a finely honed idiosyncratic sound, which created an almost meme like furore around the band. Despite An Awesome Wave’s commercial and critical success, the band chose to explore widely different sonic avenues in their subsequent full-length projects in 2014’s This is All Yours and 2017’s Relaxer. After a period of re-cuperation and reflection, the band removed the shackles and returned to the studio in January 2020 to begin creation on what we consider to be the band’s most assured and complete record of their career to date. The Dream is everything and nothing we’ve heard from Alt-J before. 

Bane is an apt introduction to this record, highlighting their ability to combine aspects of all their previous works to create a beautifully paced track centred around its unpredictable muse, “Coca-Cola”. It combines familiarities throughout, whether it’s Gus Unger-Hamilton‘s choral passages, Joe Newman’s descending vocal cadences or the hip-hop inspired percussion. The band are embracing their strengths and sound like they’re having fun doing it. The uplifting lead single U&ME follows. Gus discussed the track upon release and explained how it draws inspiration from the euphoria of being at a festival together with your best friends. And the hedonistic feeling in life that nothing could be any better than it is right now, with this very sentiment oozing proudly through the track’s vibrant lyrics and upbeat ostinatos. 

Written from the perspective of a 15-year-old making a fortune trading cryptocurrency from their bedroom, Hard Drive Gold’s lyrics cunningly trivialise its subject matter by juxtaposing the protagonist’s crypto wealth with anecdotal mundanity of life as teenage school kid. Musically, the bassline does a lot of the heavy lifting. However, it doesn’t become too indulgent, and drops out to allow the verses to breath, before returning with full vigour to trade jabs with the choral hook. Intellectually facetious lyrics, accompanied by a gleefully intoxicating groove. It’s just quintessential J. (I think I just went full Partridge). The record’s buoyant beginning is then balanced carefully with the more leisurely and broody tracks Happier When You’re Gone and The Actor

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Our Album highlight, Get Better is like Open Heart Surgery. Contrary to Alt-J’s often esoteric lyrical nature, Newman has laid his emotions out in plain sight, creating one of the bands most authentic and consciously nuanced pieces of work to date. Albeit influenced by the global coronavirus pandemic, this track was born out of two existing ideas, the first based around an improvised song Newman played to his girlfriend whilst she was suffering from period pains. The second concept was constructed around someone living through bereavement.

The lyric “starts the day with Tiramisu, raise a spoon to front line workers”, in addition to genuine thankfulness to the NHS, it playfully, yet perfectly encapsulates the general dysphoria of our lives around the beginning of the pandemic. 

Although musically simple, the post-recording presentation of this track is part of what makes it so emotionally vivid. Alt-J’s typical razor-sharp production is abandoned, and musical imperfections are left to reside peacefully, creating a subtle vulnerability we’re not used to. This band is musically gifted beyond contemporary comparison, and this can be somewhat intimidating. But Get Better shows that maybe Alt-J aren’t that scary after all. 

Despite the previous sentiment, Alt-J do somewhat return to type in the next segment of the album, as they flamboyantly exhibit their impressive ability to evoke emotions through utilising space and sonic textures in the track Chicago. The opening passage sounds likes a peaceful James Vincent McMorrow lullaby, yet before we have chance to embrace the peaceful inertia, we begin the descent into a haunting, pulsating chasm. The track’s equilibrium is eventually restored before its end, disabling dissonance and providing closure. Possibly the most interesting track on the album.

Alt-J are typically unafraid to push the boundaries of bizarre, and my goodness does Philadelphia evidence this in the most pleasing of ways. Playfully flicking between musical influences, it’s astounding how they have comfortably stitched together modern alternative pop with baroque phrasing, punctuated by eccentric operatic samples, and they’ve managed to wrap it all up in a three-and-half minute parcel.

The album closes with two of the more sombre, introspective tracks. Losing My Mind was inspired by Newman’s own personal trauma from when he was a teenager, and explores the mindset of a serial killer. Then the album’s final track Powders features a strolling piano chord structure and simple percussion, which serves as the perfect canvas for Newman to riff over beautifully with his vocals and lead guitar. This track provides a nice contrast to some of the more experimental and musically decadent chapters. However, they still find room to corporate some conversational yet poetic samples before the track slowly dissipates.  

In contrast to the sometimes-uncomfortable density of 2017’s RelaxerThe Dream feels agile and athletic. A holistic balance appears to have been struck between accessibility and intricacy, culminating in a record that Alt-J stans will revere and Alt-J passers-by will admire.

Pre-order “The Dream” here https://store.altjband.com/collections/the-dream – out February 11th!

Words – Brad Sewell

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If you haven’t already, make sure you check out our Fantasy Pints Podcast, where we interview a different guest each week and ask the one common question – “if you could go for a drink with any three musicians past or present, who would you choose any why?” Check out the latest episode with DMA’s on Spotify, Apple, YouTube & more!

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