An outpouring of instinctual, had-to-happen musical moments
Neive McCarthy
11:52 7th February 2022

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In a lot of ways, it feels like everything alt-J have released thus far has been weighed down by some mystical intensity, one its difficult to put your finger upon. Of course, they’re award-winning albums for a reason; each is breathtaking in its own right. And yet, that feeling crept into each one: be it pressure, or a kind of darkness, it settled into the crevices of their tracks consistently. The Dream, their first release in five years, feels like a stepping into the light of sorts. For alt-J, their latest is a homecoming: that which weighed them down has been lifted, and love and brightness has rushed to fill in those gaps. 

That’s not to say that The Dream is all ethereal exercises of optimism and pure joy. It’s not entirely without darkness — in fact, it quite often still lingers in the shadows. ‘Losing My Mind’ takes us directly into the psyche of a serial killer, whilst ‘Get Better’ is a desperately sad fictitious account of loss. They don’t shy away from grappling topics and tones that aren’t destined to pin a smile on your face. But there’s a beauty to each note that feels much lighter than what has come before. On ‘Get Better’, despite its capacity to reduce you to helpless tears, there’s such a beautiful, luminous quality to Joe Newman’s vocals that whilst heart-wrenching, they still manage to fill you with bittersweet hope. 

Part of that undoubtedly stems from the resounding sense that alt-J are feeling at home, and comforted. After a brief time away from music in the break between albums, there’s a newfound inspiration and thus invigoration at the heart of The Dream that makes the listening experience peacefully comforting. They’re at their most inquisitive and experimental, pushing boundaries within each individual track. ‘Walk A Mile’ begins with a charming barbershop reminiscent introduction, but it quickly leads into what might be their most soulful, sultry guitar line yet. Littered throughout are purpose-made voice notes that imbue the album with a love and tenderness — it’s love for family, and friends, and romance, but it’s most importantly fused with that love for creating. 

The Dream feels like an outpouring of instinctual, had-to-happen musical moments; it brims with pure enthusiasm and undimmable joy at being able to create such distinctive, magical tracks. alt-J are masters of the chameleon-like transition. ‘Chicago’ hums with a driving force and stomach-twisting vehemence, but with just a few bars of delicate piano, a levity is added. It’s the perfect example of how that darkness that lingered throughout alt-J’s work isn’t completely lost. It just feels easier to live with now. It’s no longer unshakeable, so even in the gloomiest depths of the album, the light can always be found — it can’t stop itself from existing and shimmering in full colour. On The Dream, there’s no pressure for alt-J anymore. It’s just passion.

The Dream arrives 11 February via Infectious/BMG.

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Photo: Press