Album Review: Alt-J - 'The Dream'

Stranded in international waters, the nether region of undefinable genre, alt-J have managed to replicate and even better the alluring sound of their debut album a decade on. After meeting at Leeds University in 2007, the trio - of Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) - picked up the Mercury Prize in 2012 for An Awesome Wave, and have been an international success ever since, receiving Grammy nominations for the two records that followed, This is All Yours (2014) and Reducer (2017). Newly released The Dream, is the band's fourth record and their best received album to date. Using the time afforded to them by lockdown, the band have experimented with the wistful sound of the first two albums, blending elements of house and unusual sampling with the familiar abstract lyricism and trademark instrumental crescendos to create their most complete creative package.

After the less successful Relaxer, it comes as no surprise that the band has to some extent reverted to the style of the first two albums, the difference this time being a more diverse range between each track in The Dream. From surprising single Get Better, the acoustic, beautifully personal homage to victims of the pandemic, to the house-y baseline of Chicago, the array of styles spanning the LP demonstrates the talent and flexibility of the group. Even within the likes Happier When You’re Gone one can hear aspects of multiple genres influencing one track. What is consistent with their previous work, however, is in the layering of different sonic textures, a hallmark of Alt- J. Often after the final chorus, they gradually build a wall of sound, adding to previous elements in the track to finish with an

engulfing crescendo.

What often goes unnoticed about the band’s sound are the vocals of Joe Newman. The success of many similar indie- rock bands comes from their lead guitar or baseline hooks , and while Alt-regularly use lengthy instrumental and choral sections, the band also has the privilege of an extremely talented lead singer, allowing them to explore more stripped back, acoustic songs. One downside, however, to Newman’s vocals in this record, is the bluntness of his lyricism. As a self- proclaimed ‘visual band’ the group attempts (and generally succeeds) to create a strong visual response in the listener, managing to hit that elusive songwriting sweet spot of ‘showing not telling’. Tracks like Taro and MS in their earlier work are great examples of this. However, in The Dream the band do seem to have strayed from this perfect zone.

"Alt-J’s stress their desire to create a sense of ambiguity and intrigue. This album, for the most part, has done that"

Using overly abrupt imagery in their writing; lines like "Cola-cola, fizzy cola" and "I’m 15 in my garden skipping, my neighbour Sue is watching me from her garden window" leave nothing open to interpretation and take away from the neo-psychedelic imagery the band are usually so skilled at creating. Perhaps this is due to the wide range of topics discussed in the album, from doing drugs with celebrities and true crime podcasts to crypto currency and fizzy drinks, it sadly seems like the group have decided on something to write about and tried too hard to squeeze lyrics out of some stony topics, rather than the more organic reverse. That being said, this record feels more personal, amidst the fictional themes consistent with their previous work, this album explores more current and relative topics; perhaps I just can’t relate to trading Bitcoin whilst having a Pepsi.

A good way to judge how an artist wants their record to be received, is their self-written Spotify bio, and alt-J’s stress their desire to create a sense of ambiguity and intrigue in their music. All told, this record, for the most part, has done that. A refreshing variation between the twelve tracks, combined with beautifully precise production, leaves the album sounding complex but clean. A controlled experiment, The Dream is the record of a band who have mastered their own domain, and are now trying their hand at expanding it.

Matty Hill


Featured image courtesy of Alt-J via Facebook. In- article videos courtesy of Alt- J via YouTube.