By Gurman Sahota, June 2, 2017 —
Alt-J is returning from a three-year break with their third studio album, RELAXER. Taking cues from experimental music of the ‘70s, the band focuses on lush instrumentals throughout the album — to the point where vocals are often overpowered.
RELAXER is a short album, with its eight tracks embodying a modern take on psychedelic music. The album begins with “3WW,” which features an indulgent instrumental intro — a whole minute and a half — before vocals tenderly surface. True to the band’s nature, the vocals are soft as backup singers take turns harmonizing with lead singer Joe Newman. From this point, the album becomes somewhat aggressive. The band gets down to business to emulate the carefully crafted sounds of a retro prog-rock album.
Unexpectedly, a cover of “House of the Rising Sun” is one of the best songs on the album, if not one of the best covers of the song ever. It’s a slow-burner and there isn’t a dramatic crescendo like the Rolling Stones’ cover, but there doesn’t have to be. Alt-J clearly set out to individualize the track, beckoning the listener to pay attention to every ebb and flow. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is a more acoustically interesting song. The lyrics are sometimes spoken, showcasing the lazy lull of Newman’s voice. The track’s scratchiness almost comes off as unpleasant but is a welcome deviation from the rest of the subdued album.
RELAXER ends much like how it starts, but with an indulgent use of silence in lieu of music. A 20-second stretch of silence at the beginning of “Pleader” is interrupted by instrumentals better suited for the ending credits of a film than this album. There are even points in the song where the music twists into something sinister, indicating the path of the band’s musical exploration.
RELAXER lacks the light, airy sounds of summer albums. The album is instead a warm and heavy listen, better suited for autumn or winter. But if this summer’s music is a little too saccharine for your tastes and you prefer homages to music of years past, RELAXER is worth the listen.