Alt-J: Fourth album 'The Dream' sounds like a hopeful nightmare
The Leeds band's new album is American-focused and ambitious, proving, again, why they're one of the most unique bands around.
The first time I heard alt-J I simply wasn’t ready for it. Lying on my mates living room couch suffering from a terrible hangover from a night of jagerbombs and indie disco at Glasgow’s abc, said friend decided to come in earlier than usual for his standard Saturday morning game of FIFA. In doing so, he put on his newly found favourite band and proceeded to blast out ‘Breezeblocks’ to accompany his Xbox gaming session. Still in half-asleep mode with a head blaring from an evening’s excess, I snapped at him to “turn that rubbish” off, or words to that effect. Thankfully he (reluctantly) complied and my first impression of the Leeds band was one of being an over the top annoyance.
May 2022 will mark a decade since alt-J released their debut An Awesome Wave, a now-classic record that passed me by at the time until that painful introduction. Associating them with my terrible hangover, it was only after being enthralled by their stunning performance of ‘Tessellate’ at the September 2012 Mercury Prize ceremony that saw me eventually give the album a proper go.
I then became obsessed with their peculiar sounds which brought together folk, art rock, indie pop and Joe Newman's distinctive crooning for one of the most unique albums of the past decade. That evening in September, they’d win the prestigious Mercury Prize as well as be awarded Album of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards in 2013, also gathering cult-like acclaim all around the world, particularly in mainland Europe and charting in the US Billboard Top 200.
With a further two albums following over the next few years (2014’s This Is All Yours and 2017’s Relaxer), the excitement was palatable again when, in September 2021, the trio announced their fourth album The Dream was incoming. Upon the announcement, new single ‘U&Me’ was released, an instantly accessible slice of smooth and nostalgic indie-pop. Based on a man’s drug-fuelled memory of a summer festival, the closing refrain of “I could hold on to the memory of that day for the rest of my life” left a lingering impact and had us thirsty for more. An emphatic return to mark their return with style, the sound of a band we didn’t realise we missed until now.
On the album itself, ‘U&ME’ follows ominous opener ‘Bane’, beginning with the sound of a can being opened and a spoken statement of “cold and sizzling” before a beautifully sprawling track that includes choir harmonies, tension-filled intricacies and an ode to “fizzy cola”.
‘Hard Drive Gold’ is the most groove-filled tune over the album, with a funky bassline, hand claps and an addictive chorus (“Gimme that gold / Straight into my hard drive”), an ironic number about trading cryptocurrency. It might even be their most pop-focused song yet and that it has received extensive radio play is no surprise, proving alt-J still have the ability to write mainstream focused tunes alongside their more meandering.
Released only a few days prior to the album’s release, ‘The Actor’ initially didn’t carry the same punch as the singles it proceeded, but still offers an intriguing tale of an aspiring actor chasing his “dream”. Instead, he's been caught up in “the deepest end of an empty pool” of cocaine addiction and anonymity. The acoustic ‘Get Better’ is a beautiful love letter to a dying partner, reminiscing about happier days as the singer’s partner lies in hospital. It’s mournful and reflective without being too overly emotional and sits even more perfectly on the record than it did as a standalone single.
The first half of the album features four previously released singles so we’re in more unfamiliar terrain when it comes to the second. The quality is still high, though, naturally, there’s not the same accessibility and punch, the lack of succinctness becoming slightly weary the closer to the album’s end we get.
‘Chicago’ build the tension before moving into dark trance-like waters, the sound of the dream turning into a nightmare and is utterly captivating, whilst the strings and opera on ‘Philadelphia’ adds intensity in a different manner. The band momentarily lose focus with the forgettable ‘Walk a Mile’ and ‘Delta’, pulling it back with the eeriness of murder song ‘Losing My Mind’. Hopeful and romantic ‘Powders’ feels like the perfect note to end on, the welcomed calm after the intense storm.
The Dream is a brilliant return from the Leeds art-rockers proving they can still provide success in impactful pop-focused songs and more meandering, darker tracks. It definitely feels like a tale of two halves, the first more fun and memorable, the second being more thoughtful, darkening the palette and possessing a daydream quality. Still, alt-J hit the target more than they miss, The Dream leaving you feeling reflective and yet, somehow, optimistic.