Textural hills, valleys, and more in alt-J’s new album

Softball players raise money for cancer research at StrikeOut Cancer on TuesdayPhoto by Kat Clark '12
Softball players raise money for cancer research at StrikeOut Cancer on Tuesday
Photo by Kat Clark '12

Let’s just face it: there is no next Radiohead.

That aside, alt-J’s sophomore album “This is All Yours” holds up to the expectations set two years ago by their debut “An Awesome Wave.” This last feat was a surprise success for the then four-piece band hailing from Leeds. In just five years, the group climbed from writing in their dorm rooms and recording on GarageBand to winning a coveted Mercury Prize.

Two years later, the band manages to navigate a broad emotional and sonic landscape without sacrificing character. Employing everything from warped sitars to church bells, “This is All Yours” is unified by Joe Newman’s distinct vocal quality and the sense of power that looms even in the most vulnerable tracks. The band seems to have shored up its sound, enabling it to traverse a greater range of feeling in its second album.

Even more than “An Awesome Wave,” “This is All Yours” is better understood as soundscape than as songcraft. There are no verses and choruses; rather, there are textural hills and valleys, defined by asymmetrical structures that often don’t make sense when the tracks are taken out of the context of the album. For that reason, it’s best to listen to the whole thing straight through.

Perhaps most impressive is that the album is so successful after losing founding bassist Gwil Sainsbury. Sainsbury left after realizing that the realities of life on tour and in the studio didn’t suit him.

His absence is most noticeable on the first track written after his departure, “Hunger of the Pine.” It’s the the sparest in terms of production, feeling more akin to Rhye or James Blake with its heavily reverbed trumpets and minimal beat. The Miley sample, “I am the female rebel,” from post-transformation track “22,” is jarring at first. But after several listens, it begins to make narrative sense in the song. In fact, this may be the most narrative track on the album, one of few able to stand alone convincingly.

There’s an ethereality in this album, but it’s more human than the work of otherworldly superstars like Björk and Grimes. Rather than the magic of another world, it’s a hauntingly primal space that comes through Newman’s alternately barked and wailed vocals. “Intro” powerfully demonstrates the band’s compelling mysticism.

This first track is followed by four minutes of somewhat boring melancholy in “Arriving in Nara.” Despite the title, there’s very little sense of arrival in this track. But not to worry — the momentum returns in “Nara.” With piano lines reminiscent of Muse’s classical reprises and subtle “Toccata in D Minor” vibes, the track builds irresistably into some of the album’s most successful sounds, marked by aggressively punctuated “alleluias.”

Less convincing is the duet “Warm Foothills,” with two voices exchanging the melody as frequently as every other word. While the poetic implication here is cute, the effect is somewhat jarring and removed from the otherwise peaceful texture. Newman’s voice is better left as it is on most of the other tracks: a textural element. His vocals work better as an instrument than as a narrator.

Many critics see alt-J as a guy with a stupidly weird voice singing stupidly weird lyrics. And it’s true — the lyrics are weird, and not always in a meaningful way. But there’s something oddly satisfying in that. Despite the grim verdicts of Ian Cohen at “Spin” and Kitty Empire at “The Guardian,” I think there’s a refreshing frankness in lines like “I want to turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” It’s not romantic. It’s not sexy. And as far as we can tell, it doesn’t mean anything beyond the gross sticky-slimy feeling that it leaves us with. But maybe that’s enough.

As for the now-infamous Radiohead comparison, the main difference is that Radiohead is a much more intellectual band. They are philosophically more sophisticated and musically better thought-out. “This Is All Yours” is an experiential album. It’s almost impressionistic; its beauty lies not in poetry or in form, but in the visceral impact of the textures. You’re not going to get any references to Faust. The closest you’ll get to grappling with Mephistopheles is the O-M-G in “Left Hand Free.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful in it’s own right.

So stop overthinking it. Don’t listen to the words too closely. Just let yourself steep in the angst, the warmth, and the glorious weird of this resonant sophomore effort.

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