Alt-J, ‘This Is All Yours’ – Album Review
Alt-J are perhaps the unlikeliest of rock saviors. Named for an unpronounceable Mac symbol (∆ -- which is what you get when you type alt + j) and intentionally faceless for the first few years of their existence, the British trio began creating their Mercury Prize-winning 2012 debut, ‘An Awesome Wave,’ while studiously matriculating at Leeds University. In fact, the distinct muted drum sound on that album is due in large part to the fact that the band (originally a four-piece) were restrained by the strict sound restrictions of their rehearsal space -- drummer Thom Green’s dorm room.
The quirkiness behind their identity, however, paled in comparison to the quirkiness of the unclassifiable genre-bending on ‘An Awesome Wave’ -- an introduction that deconstructed experimental pop through the lens of atmospheric electronica, all on a shoestring budget.
While other outfits might have felt pigeonholed by the ensuing and unexpected success of the album and buckled under the tremendous weight of rampant Radiohead comparisons, Alt-J have returned with ‘This Is All Yours’ -- a sophomore effort that takes full advantage of the band’s newfound studio freedom while assuring the collective internet unconscious that Alt-J aren’t about to cater to anyone’s expectations.
Just as on ‘An Awesome Wave,’ the band kicks off the album with a largely instrumental intro; but while the intro from their debut set the tone for what would follow (13 songs that more or less made up one continuous, albeit mildly constrained concept), the intro from ‘This Is All Yours’ sets its own tone by blowing open the sonic possibilities with booming percussion, an ominous Eastern-tinged melody and a seemingly endless chorus of artificial voices that lead into ‘Arrival in Nara,’ the first of three songs on the album referencing a city in Japan with a central park where deer are free to roam.
The metaphor is an obvious one as ‘This Is All Yours’ spans much of the known musical spectrum, all filtered through Alt-J’s intensely deliberate creative prism. While the lead single, ‘Hunger of the Pine,’ has a familiar synthetic aesthetic (with a shockingly fitting Miley Cyrus sample featured prominently), ‘Every Other Freckle’ is a mash-up of sultry soul and uncomfortable sexuality with frontman Joe Newman seething, “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat into a beanbag / Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” And ‘Left Hand Free’ -- easily the band’s radio-friendliest song to date -- is a Southern fried, organic-sounding summer anthem complete with a toe-tapping, sing-along chorus.
But there are also those moments that prove Alt-J aren’t worried about accessibility: ‘Garden of England’ breaks away for a recorder duet that would provide the perfect soundtrack to a Renaissance Fair; they enlisted Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst to contribute vocals to ‘Warm Foothills’ which also features more whistling than any song this side of Andrew Bird; and ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ (about the most infamous scene from ‘Alien’) slowly builds from a pensive ballad into a crashing wave of tribal rhythms and a wall of near incantation.
Both quintessentially indie and anti-indie, intentionally off-the-wall and self-referential, ‘This Is All Yours’ is a masterstroke from one of the most interesting acts working today. While ‘An Awesome Wave’ presented a very specific view of Alt-J, ‘This Is All Yours’ presents a vast array of sounds and ideas in layer upon complex layer, making for a headphone album that feels like it could also level an amphitheater. While it’s not perfect, it does cement Alt-J’s status as a band with boundless potential -- although we’ve already learned it’s probably unwise to guess where they’ll venture next.