If this weren’t such an earnest, quality album, it might be easy to dismiss Alt-J for their youthful pretentiousness. Aside from the name – and the keyboard-shortcut moniker has elicited surprisingly little cynicism – there are lyrics and allusions on ‘An Awesome Wave’ that will induce squirming. For instance, here songs are inspired by ‘the pains and pangs of unrequited love’ via ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, Hubert Selby Jr. and the death of a matador (?!)
Yet, they’re almost totally forgivable. Ambition should generally be encouraged, and they’ve produced a really distinctive collection of songs from an array of peripheral influences. In short, this sounds far too accomplished to be a debut record.
Throughout you’ll find yourself drawing comparisons or mentally citing influences, but they are all ultimately detachable. It’s this elusive quality that is key; Radiohead are brought to mind, as are Wild Beasts, but neither really stick. Instead, you come to realise that it’s the general quality of the album that is inviting such thoughts - rather than any sonic similarities.
The harmonies are very carefully plotted, and with their distinctive vocals in mind, it’s most accurate to describe Alt-J as a band taking on folk music in the most contemporary way. Like a more daring Mumford, the album begins with an introductory track (which they were initially tempted to name ‘Nod to the Canon’ in recognition of their various inspirations) that pairs piano with heavy drums, and moves on to include a lyric-less acoustic guitar interlude (‘Guitar’), a touching love song (‘Matilda’) and an indie track that has found its way to radio (‘Breezeblocks’).
‘Guitar’ is not the only interlude track to feature, and these opportunities to ‘clear the palette’ are indicative of the seriousness and precision with which ‘An Awesome Wave’ has been constructed. The vocals are sometimes strained, and they are somewhat dour, but Alt-J is a band that has earned the right to be taken very seriously indeed.