San Francisco – Back in 2012, the UK’s Alt-J put forth their eerily fascinating debut LP, An Awesome Wave, and quickly made a name for themselves in the realm of rock music. Their debut is wrought with homemade time signatures and viscous modulation, all pulsing gracefully under the canopy of singer/guitarist Joe Newman’s mysterious and truly unique vocals. The album delighted listeners and critics alike, earning the new band the prestigious Mercury Prize and an abrupt reputation as one of the most intriguing musical outfits on the scene today.
Since then, the band has lost one of its founding members, Gwil Sainsbury – an amiable separation, claiming the rock star lifestyle was not his cup of tea – and now the band is down to three members: Newman, drummer Thom Green, and keyboardist/fellow vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton. Their follow-up to An Awesome Wave, this year’s This Is All Yours, is Alt-J’s first effort as a trio, and an admirable second chapter in what looks to be a voluminous career.
With This Is All Yours, Alt-J elected to experiment with a wider array of sounds and instruments – ranging from alluring piano chords to a sample from Miley Cyrus – and thus have created an album that is both strikingly eclectic yet still manages to play out as a strong, cohesive album. Alt-J’s signature style of brazen, growling bass tones and heavily stylistic vocal timbres is evident throughout much of the album, though its presence is almost understated at times.
The chorus of “la-la-las” that open the album in “Intro” quickly morph from pleasant to jarring, with the addition of muffled, distorted lyrics that are interrupted by that gruff bass. From here, the album slinks solemnly into the decorative, somber “Arrival in Nara,” the first of a trio of Nara-themed songs (the other two being the following track, “Nara,” and the LP’s last track, “Leaving Nara”), which enters like a funeral party, soft-shoed at first with plunks of spacey guitar marked by the slow marching of piano, whose magnitude grows ever so slowly. In a recent interview with Stereogum, Unger-Hamilton explains the trio of songs as a way of breaking up one large idea they had, focusing on the idea of living freely and happily (Nara is a town in Japan where deer roam freely). The three tracks capture this essence effectively, the first embodying a sort of cautious optimism, as the song tiptoes along before transforming into “Nara,” an organ-fueled hymn that claims repeatedly, “love is the warmest color, Hallelujah!”
The listener first encounters the Alt-J from the past in the playfully erotic “Every Other Freckle,” their most-recently released single, which finds jubilant sexiness with lyrics like “turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” that droop seductively under the denseness of Newman’s vocals.
The album’s other two singles, “Left Hand Free” and “Hunger of the Pine,” hit the LP’s two extremes on the stylistic spectrum that stretches outward from “Every Other Freckle,” the first being a raucous rock song in the vain of the Black Keys and a spontaneous exercise in songwriting that the band ended up loving, despite its blatant departure from their original sound. After all, the band got its name from the keyboard shortcut for the ∆, a symbol that represents change.
The other track, “Hunger of the Pine,” was the first single to be released from This Is All Yours, and is a tender reminder of the pain we feel when apart from the ones we love, as Gus Unger-Hamilton explained to NPR: “The lyrics mainly suggest the idea that missing someone – pining – can be a physical pain much like hunger.” The song also features a sample of Miley Cyrus singing “I’m a female rebel,” which is lifted from her track “4×4” (a song that drummer Thom Green once remixed), serving more as an homage than anything else, though it also conjures the image of a voice of a faraway soul, one that echoes through someone’s mind during moments of remembrance.
Other departures from their original sound include the male/female duet “Warm Foothills” – originally penned for their soundtrack to the film Leave To Remain – which has vocals bouncing between Newman and an unnamed female singer within each line, in an almost dizzying fashion. The dirge-like “Choice Kingdom” is a slow, steady piece about their home country, yet at times it sounds like a song on a Fleet Foxes album due to its haunting, woody, choral-like qualities. However each of these tracks are a stone’s throw from the ones that emanate the sort of oddly endearing idiosyncratic harmonies, song structures, and bizarre lyrical content that Alt-J is known for, including the thumping “The Gospel of John Hurt,” as well as the “sequel” to An Awesome Wave’s creepy “Bloodflood,” the second part of which supplements welcome instrumentation with the addition of horns and a more driving percussive force.
As the album closes with the vibrant piece “Leaving Nara,” we are reminded of the incredible range of the album, and of the talent of the band itself. As a continuation of the album’s openers, it pulls us back to the dream of living free, a lesson that Alt-J has clearly taken to heart in the creation of this record. This Is All Yours is a thoughtful album that reads almost like a lucid dream – the band is clearly in control in a world of their own creation. The result is a clean, entrancing album that hits all the right notes in all the right places, painting an expansive landscape of sound, leaving the listener with a full heart and mind, with just the right amount of “Huh?” that one expects from Britain’s resident eccentric song-crafters.
This Is All Yours is out September 23 via Canvasback Music/Atlantic Records. The band are currently on tour internationally and begin a North American tour on October 14. Full details on their Facebook page.