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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Alt-J: Relaxer


1) 3WW; 2) In Cold Blood; 3) House Of The Rising Sun; 4) Hit Me Like That Snare; 5) Deadcrush; 6) Adeline; 7) Last Year; 8) Pleader.

Perhaps this is the fate that is predestined for every half-decent band in the next few years: sooner or later, want it or not, there is no escape, everybody will turn into Bon Iver. Because, apparently, the only thing that this world needs is soft, quiet, monotonous muzak to fall asleep to. A solid, emotionally loaded, philosophically challenging sedative. A relaxer! Come to think of it, it is 2017 and we are all so riled up at things and at each other, we just need to relax. Here, have yourself an anti-matter version of ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ and embrace eternity.

Unfortunately, the band did not even go ga-ga, as I had hoped in the previous review; it went into hibernation. The rules of the game were laid from the start, so that expecting to have «energy» from Alt-J is the same as expecting to have love ballads from AC/DC — however, playing like a bunch of disabled paralytics is one (artistic) thing, and playing like a pack of heavily sedated sleepwalkers is another. For some reason, the band has completely dumped its slightly math-rockish schtick, and is now sticking to much more simple and derivative musical structures. About half of the album consists of repetitive minor key folk-pop / adult contemporary broodings, and the other half is a mix of alt-rock and trip-hop that aspires to darkness and disturbance but is way too limp to warrant either.

I have given a respectable five or six listens to the lead-in track ʽ3WWʼ, yet all I can say is this: if you want a truly bleak, truly sharp-cutting, truly resonant musical portrait of «depressed Euro­pean society» (or «English», whatever), put on some Black Box Recorder — the deadly combo of Luke Haines' songwriting talents and Sarah Nixey's deadpan vocalizing worked brilliantly, while this minimalistic mix of acoustic strum, ambient piano lines, crackling fire, and sexy-robot whis­per vocals from guest star Ellie Rowsell goes absolutely nowhere. "I just want to love you in my own language" is, theoretically, a line that could be very well placed in a song, but here it is put on such a ridiculously high pedestal — they have to pause the music in order for the vocalists to deliver it — that the whole thing ends up being a generic «we're so sentimental, we're so honest, we're so INDIE!» statement. You know, the one that usually goes together with a woollen hat and an unkept beard. A log cabin couldn't hurt, either.

I am fairly certain that there will always be people ready to accept the band's cover of — or, rather, the band's «expansion pack» for — ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ as a modern music master­piece. Allegedly, the exchange of the morose, tragic mood of the folksy original, or the angry mood of The Animals' version for a pacified, spiritual interpretation is a brave new development. With the new verses and the new musical atmosphere the song is no longer a lament or a fiery accusation, but rather a placated reminiscence from a dead-and-gone protagonist now lodged in Heaven, re­gularly in­terrupting the verses with a purring "it's a happy, happy, happy fun day". It is a curious idea that could have been realized well; unfortunately, it has been realized as a lethargic New Age-folk roll, and I'd honestly rather listen to Loreena McKennitt — at least she can do the «beauty» angle better on things like these.

But it gets even worse when the boys return to a «rocking» mood: ʽHit Me Like That Snareʼ sounds like a bad outtake from an uninspired Lou Reed record — the lyrics recited rather than sung, nasty distorted guitars creating a mock-rebellious attitude whose irony is disembowelled by its muddiness, sloppiness, and lack of proper aggression, and gratuitous «cool» references to everything from Moon Shaped Pool to Japanese cardinal numbers. I suppose the song is inten­ded to make vicious fun of "dangerous teenagers", which is a perfectly valid option, but there is nothing that sets back an angry social statement as efficiently as a lazy, sloppy, unmemorable melodic backing. And, for what it's worth, five years ago these guys appeared on the scene with the idea that «rocking out» was a completely obsolete custom anyway — so why return to it now in the first place? Just to call out some dangerous teenagers?

The last three songs on the album are all slow, moody, sentimental, and fairly hard to bear. The endless quiet guitars, hushed vocals, echoes, elements of folktronica — these guys were really only interesting as long as your brain was telling you that they strive to do something new and unpredictable, but at this point, they are just turning into generic singer-songwriters, eliciting our compassion with well-established production tricks rather than melodic content or unique styli­zations. In other words, I have no interest in seeing their hearts on their sleeves: I already have such a huge collection of those that you might excuse me if I become somewhat insensitive to the gesture. Even the guest appearance by the neo-folk star Marika Hackman on ʽLast Yearʼ does nothing for me — she might have one of those «angelic vocals» that automatically turn folk rock into spiritual experience, and she might even be nice and likable on her own, but in the overall context of this album, her part near the end of it is a kind of a «seal-the-deal» trick, and the whole song becomes a manipulative tear-jerker, you know, that sort of tune you usually hear in a movie about a kid dying from cancer or homeless Vietnam veterans or whatever.

None of it's tragic or criminal on its own, but as the next page in the evolution of a band that started out with such great promise, it is both tragic and criminal, in a way — for one thing, be­cause it undermines and undersells the potential of the little advanced sub-genre (let's call it «paralytic post-rock») that they might have invented. If it is all destined to devolve to this level, we might all just as well throw in the towel right away. I just hope it's only a matter of not eating your vitamins properly. But whatever the case, the verdict here is a strict thumbs down... and please, no more deconstruction of classics without a doctor's prescription.

1 comment:

  1. "the band's cover of — or, rather, the band's «expansion pack» for — ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ"
    Give me rather the scorched earth approach of this Japanese female band:

    Makes Joe Cocker sound like a sweetie.