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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Alt-J: This Is All Yours


1) Intro; 2) Arrival In Nara; 3) Nara; 4) Every Other Freckle; 5) Left Hand Free; 6) Garden Of England; 7) Choice Kingdom; 8) Hunger Of The Pine; 9) Warm Foothills; 10) The Gospel Of John Hurt; 11) Pusher; 12) Bloodflood Pt. II; 13) Leaving Nara.

Alt-J's second album leaves even less doubt about these guys wanting to make a difference: here, they keep pushing and pushing these boundaries with such dedication and such strength that would seem unbelievable, coming from a band whose lead vocalist usually sounds as if he were completely paralyzed from the waist down, and spreading. Everything is being thrown into the pot — rock, folk, pop, blues, electronica, some hip-hop, and even a Miley Cyrus sample, because these days, it's always cool to acknowledge your acknowledgement of shit-pop, even if you strive for exquisite artistic respectability.

Still, in doing all that, they remain just as inscrutable and, what's worse, the eclectic influences and the insane potpourri of word and sound seem just as randomly put together. Glancing at the track names, you might think that the record is a concept album — or even a rock opera — cen­tered around the lyrical hero's journey to Nara, which may or may not be the imperial capital of Japan in the 8th century, but somehow I suspect that they just chose the name because of a sonic association with Narnia; in any case, ʽNaraʼ is only mentioned once in the song cycle (for that matter, ʽAlabamaʼ is mentioned far more often), and for all the different elements represented on the album, nothing specifically Japanese ever caught my ear. Nevertheless, we may agree that the track list does steer your mind towards thinking of some magical journey to some mystical place: you go there, you see the sights, you experience the flashbacks, and then you go home.

Ideology-wise, This Is All Yours may be described as «SMiLE meets OK Computer»: a light, but melodically complex psychedelic fantasy, soaked in a mix of tender melancholy, pessimism, and detachment — the lonesome artist, lost within an indifferent crowd, who clearly sees that the end is near, but can do nothing about it. This description may be enough to make you want to hear the record, and by all means, do so; but do not hold out high hopes, either, that the actual music will be approaching the creative genius of Brian Wilson or the master craftsmanship of Radiohead. For that, there is simply too much weirdness, not enough sharp emotional jolts, and, just as before, an irritating thinness and shallowness of sound; as a matter of fact, I hate these thin, half-cardboard, half-cavernous production values that make even the most beautiful of Alt-J's sounds feel... well, mildly speaking, not as multi-dimensional as they would have been, were a real Brian Wilson in charge of things.

This would not be so bad if the music were more memorable, but it is not supposed to be memo­rable: it is supposed to be an intricate mix of influences. Already the ʽIntroʼ puts together pro­grammed vocal harmonies that sound like an android idea of the Beach Boys (more like The Beach Bots, if you ask me), rhythmic patterns that sound like they were lifted off a Kanye West album, ambient synth tones and acoustic folk guitar. It's a cool mix — in theory — but it just isn't too moving or too intellectually stimulating in practice. In desperation, I try my best move — that is, to think of this whole thing as an alien ritual — but this is where the thin production values and the mediocre musicianship really undermine the proceedings, because then I cannot get rid of the feeling that these particular aliens are mere apprentices, and still have to go through a lot of schooling before they can impress grown-ups.

Interestingly, although the album went to the top of the charts in the UK and even reached #4 in the US, its three singles were far less successful — evidently, most people bought into this band for its overall sound rather than their individual moments. Indeed, if the most prominent hook on your lead single (ʽHunger Of The Pineʼ) is the sampled Miley Cyrus line "I'm a female rebel!", you somehow know that this singles business is just an obligatory nod to a tiresome tradition; because otherwise, ʽHunger Of The Pineʼ is just a mood piece, a deep bass drone with complex, but monotonous vocal harmonies. At least the second single, ʽLeft Hand Freeʼ, has a more rocking sound, with a heavy distorted blues-rock riff and a distinct verse-chorus structure, though it still makes the best of plastic production to ensure that it is never ever mistaken for a plain old «rock» song. And the third single, ʽEvery Other Freckleʼ, returns us to the world of vocal harmo­nies, except that now they are more in the new-school-R&B / modern hip-hop vein more than anything Beach Boyish in style.

As the album goes by, they pause their bus at the «Medieval Pastoral» stop (ʽGarden Of Englandʼ, a short woodwind-driven instrumental), at the Avett Brothers stop (that entire «bearded guy in winter hat playing acoustic guitar» shit — ʽWarm Foothillsʼ, ʽPusherʼ), and, of course, at the Radiohead stop (ʽThe Gospel Of John Hurtʼ would have very easily fit on In Rainbows or any of those late-period albums). And yet, by the time we are ready to be ʽLeaving Naraʼ, it is still not clear to me where exactly we have just been. Clearly, we have been somewhere special: a record like this could not have reached the top of the charts if music lovers did not feel it deep down in their bones. But is the «special», in this particular case, a «meaningful» special, or is it merely a thin-sounding kaleidoscope of meaningless sonic concatenations? At the very least, it seems to be actual music, not empty pretense à la Bon Iver; yet it is doubtful to me that it will ever achieve the status of a true «modern classic», unless it will simply do so by virtue of slim competition. Too damn enigmatic, despite all the formal achievement.

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