RELAXER is British indie band alt-J's third albumDarligulves

“In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure.” So sang alt-J in their 2012 breakout B-side ‘Fitzpleasure’ as they exploded into the public eye. Masked by Joe Newman’s nasal tone, the inert sexuality of their music often goes unnoticed; layered over subtle guitars and often distinctive bass lines, the band have since occupied a space in the charts which both escapes definition and is instantly recognisable.

Their band name refers to the Greek symbol ∆, which represents difference and change; so it seems fitting that the band, with each album they have released, have changed their sound in at points subtle, and then fundamental ways. An Awesome Wave, the band’s first studio album, was defined by gentle electric guitars, vocal harmonies and at times overpowering rock energy. 2014’s followup, This Is All Yours, began to embrace acoustic tendencies with pastoral themes as the band became more comfortable with drone-like melodies and electro-acoustic instrumentation.

In RELAXER, the band’s third attempt, they build on the acoustic sensibilities of ‘Arrvial in Nara’; using a 30-piece string ensemble behind the band’s unusual line-up, the record ranges from the understated affection of ‘Adeline’ to the punk-infused sexuality of ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, at once accepting their folk roots in ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and subsequently denying them in ‘Deadcrush’. The resulting sound is at once delicately beautiful and wonderfully violent; complex, sexy and weird, alt-J have re-entered the industry with an album that fully embraces the multiple honesties of their cathartic youth.

The first single and track from the album, ‘3WW’, was promoted on social media with the caption ‘00110011 01110111 01110111’ (translating as ‘3WW’), a number which is then paraphrasing in the opening of ‘In Cold Blood’, the record’s second single; one of the few ways that the songs within the album are interconnected.

“alt-J have re-entered the industry with an album that fully embraces the multiple honesties of their cathartic youth”

Working as a quasi-concept album, where the concept is the listener’s alienation from the lyrical and musical meaning depicted therein, alt-J’s RELAXER at all points seeks to surprise, retaining elements of their earlier albums (such as the ‘la la la’s in ‘In Cold Blood’), the record is also loosely tied together within the bounds of harmony, largely centring on D major and repeating at different points the seminal chordal theme that defines the bridge of ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. As Newman sings “Fuck you… I’ll do… What I want to do”, alt-J as a group seem to revisit their teenage angst. The song is filthy, energetic, and pumped full of sex: “I’m fucking loose, you’re gorgeous, I don’t care / Come closer, baby, slap me like that snare.”

If ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is alt-J’s fetishistic sexuality bursting through their musical boundaries (“Family matters, I couldn’t agree more / This is my family fisting me on the floor”), then ‘Deadcrush’ is the more refined response. With breaths intertwined with the opening drumbeat, a whispered “extra” before the first verse, and a distorted bass below the often undetectable lyrics, the band conceal genuine emotion underneath their sexy exterior: “If you don’t have the ace of hearts / My dear, you’re a lost man.” This lyric tackes the record back from the brink of aggression, from sex and rage, and distortion and violence, towards the underlying acoustic beauty of the album’s opening track.

‘Adeline’, the next track, is a soft declaration of love. Harmony singing, arpeggiated guitar, soft drums and strings are the backdrop of the sound; the lyrics are deeply caring; the structure, like many of the songs on RELAXER, is often hard to place, so instead of focusing on verse/chorus repetitions, we are lead through ‘Adeline’ like an adult returning to their birthplace, seeing everything anew and yet recognising the landmarks as they go by. This is true of the whole album, and no more so than in the closing track, ‘Pleader’.

Truly kaleidoscopic, ‘Pleader’ opens on an eerie keyboard and distorted bass, answered with an acoustic guitar, which is then joined by strings and arpeggiated percussion. Featuring a small orchestra, and written like a minimal tone poem interspersed with pop episodes, the song flits between D major and D minor almost on a whim; always reflected in either the tumultuous texture of the song’s opening or the orchestral answer, ‘Pleader’ is itself a dichotomy, containing both of the energetic anger of the album’s mid section and the quasi-pastoral themes of its opening and close.

Both gentle and angry, tender and sexy, the sound of RELAXER is anything but relaxing. Like a band who has seen the record industry in full swing and thought ‘nah, we can do better’, alt-J have sought to re-invent the alternative rock wheel by creating a sound-world where absurdism is the only way and eclecticism is the only truth, with surprisingly successful results.

Never normal, and only at points understandable, the new record may be a challenging listen to those unfamiliar with alt-J’s early works. But if you sit back and trust in the ever-strange creators of the record, alt-J will take you to the edge and all the way back in an accomplished style that leaves you with a surprising sensation that, although not being traditionally relaxing, is not worlds away from the word’s underlying meaning; they may push your musical boundaries, but they’ll also bring you home

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