Alt-J’s new album is too exploratory to definitively signify a change of direction – instead, it suspends direction entirely. Relaxer may not be revolutionary (or cohesive, for that matter) but it is a marked departure from the band’s winning formula parodied to viral success by two rice-cake-munching YouTubers back in 2015. An unsettling combination of sex, death and melancholy, each of the eight new tracks offers a slightly different avatar of the indie trio – and all are not created equal.
Kicking off the third day of 6 Music Live at Maida Vale with ‘3WW’ – the soothing opener from the new album that flits between folk, soft-rock and pop ballad – it’s apparent that the guys have still got it. Thom Sonny Green’s percussion immediately steals the show, its unpredictability saving the string quintet and piano melody from sounding too Les Miserables-esque.
With a smattering of stellar tracks from alt-J’s Mercury-winning debut on the set list, it becomes evident as the show progresses that Relaxer is comparatively inconsistent. While the standout songs from the new album sound nothing like those from An Awesome Wave, they do share an inventiveness that makes the transition between them seamless. The weaker numbers sound entirely forgettable by comparison to these and the two tight tracks performed from This Is All Yours, ‘Every Other Freckle’ and ‘Left Hand Free’.
Joe Newman’s voice takes nasal to a new level (think BeeGees) with his live rendition of ‘Deadcrush’ but it works somehow. The horn quartet brought in for ‘Cold Summer’ makes for a chorus rousing enough to launch an Apple ad campaign, almost matching the infectious ‘Dissolve Me’ that follows. Gus Unger-Hamilton’s choir-boy lilting lulls me into a blissful trance on ‘Adeline’ – but that devolves into a stupor with a painfully slow rendition of ‘Last Year’, saved only by the inimitable Marika Hackman.
Brief moments of disappointment are sandwiched between phenomenal performances of early classics and genuinely exciting new tracks, however, and if this is the price of a touch of unpredictability, then it’s definitely worth paying.
Words: Amardeep Singh Dillon
In Cold Blood
(with Marika Hackman)
Every Other Freckle
Left Hand Free