When Alt-J blessed the music world with (eventual Mercury Prize Winner) An Awesome Wave in 2012, they were lauded by most as experimentalists and musical revolutionaries; by others they were lampooned and lambasted for being “overstuffed and messy, and so overworked that what life there may once have been now exists as a kind of primordial paste.” (Any guess who said that?) The Pitchfork talking heads–those that still pride themselves on being arrogant contrarians who get to not-hear, read about, and then hate good music before everyone else–will tell you that the lyrics on “Taro” make no sense and “Fitzpleasure” is goofy netherspeak. If you happen to be one of those people, two things: (1) “Taro” is one of the most heartbreaking love songs ever written, about two photojournalists blown to pieces in the line of duty; and (2) steer clear of this record.
The macabre and heavy atmospheric electro-“pop” (as it was dubbed) is this time driven all the way up, expanded—metastasized—absorbing deeper folk roots and unleashing with reckless abandon Alt-J’s wildly experimental and indefinite sound. Like the prose necessary to describe it, the layers of influences, samples, guest voices, sounds, and ultimately moods proliferate and coalesce to a nefarious mass of dark sonic goodness.
After the “Intro” comes two tracks from The Nara trilogy, both representative and explicative testament to the album’s impetus and its resultant scope. The tracks derive from the Japanese city of Nara where deer run free and love—yes, love appears here, of course—is free to act so long as it doesn’t hurt. Likewise, Alt-J have expressed their desire to create and experiment with their love of music. “Nara” aptly demonstrates that love: it is ephemeral and atmospheric, encapsulating a haunting darkness that paradoxically conjures visceral attacks to both mind and gut.
The preceding track, “Arrival in Nara,” resonates with the thrum of internal turmoil, here rattling off of abandoned church walls. The sound is big, the sound is dark, and Joe Newman’s by-now characteristic syllabic elisions stir up and exacerbate the gloom, rather than cutting through it. The effect is not quite as tone-setting as the introductory track on An Awesome Wave, but it nonetheless encapsulates and begs listeners to sit back, set down, listen.
“Every Other Freckle,” the third single really is a bit silly, isn’t it? Newman promises to “turn you inside out and lick you a crisp packet” in a strange moment of loin-driven, stream of consciousness thought-vomit (there are plenty of erotic fruit–mangos, avocados, hell, chicken wings maybe, but crisps?). Where ∆’s debut tended towards the sinister, this album moves towards associative and intimately personal allusions, and so the William Carlos Williams imagism of a chip bag and a beanbag chair (glazed with rain / water) comes off almost childishly impulsive (contrast with “Fitzpleasure”), more humourously misguided than sexy or threatening. And yet, there’s something infectious about the track: it still features the poignant vocal harmonies, the electro-folk sound, the ominous samples and grating animal(istic) auditory bursts that captured so many ears and hearts in 2012.
Conversely, “Left Hand Free” is as un-Alt-J as a song can be and, despite its overwhelmingly obvious marketability, is also a great Alt-J song. Pumped along by the pop-pop-popping of Thom Green’s cowbell, the track is infectious, groovy, and totally not what David Letterman listens to on his days off: “What award did you guys win?”
Surprisingly, the Miley-infused “Hunger of the Pine” emerges as the most aurally replete, the most lyrically allusive and poignant, the most comfortably Alt-J track on the album. The downright weird Miley sample—questionably scripted (“I’m a Female Rebel”), unquestionably Miley (whiny and intentionally inflected i.e. “rebohl”)—actually works. The sonic qualities of the edited sample contribute to a powerful affective wholeness of sound: triangle, ∆, Alt-J fans are familiar with the almost narcotic mood-altering capacities of An Awesome Wave and “Hunger of the Pine” effects those qualities through multi-tracked, partially French lyrics, intersected with pseudo-Miley’s ghastly, auto-tuned bleating.
Still, the effusive darkness is sometimes too murky and the album sags slightly in the middle, weighed down by the overwhelming sombreness. Consequently, there are some tracks that, while still good tunes in their own right, seem to find a home on the album as arbitrary but necessary alleviation. One such song is the holistically folky “Warm Foothills.” Where An Awesome Wave, and indeed most of the tracks on This is All Yours, successfully absorb and re-emit resonances from all of the trio’s influential genres and bands, including folk, “Warm Foothills” occupies a solipsistic space as a distinctly sunhat-and-banjo track on an intentionally indefinite and multi-genred album. While the majority of Alt-J’s sophomore release grows and proliferates thematically and sonically in an organic way, a few cuts feel more or less tacked on.
And then, of course, “Bloodflood pt. II” obliterates—chews you up and then spits you out, hopelessly broken and masochistically sick with Stockholm Syndrome. The track is probably ∆’s best to date, outshining its eponymous predecessor in soul-crushing gravitas and earth-shattering magnitude.
Alt-J made Awesome Waves their first time around (I think I’ve made that joke before—sorrynotsorry) and, fortunately for us, managed to avoid a sophomore slump. Sticking to “making the music they want to make” instead of the music they’re asked to make (which is not necessarily a reference to selling out, only to overthinking and under-feeling the creation of art) Alt-J have birthed another album that refuses to be classified. This is All Yours begs to be experienced, to be intellectualized, and then eviscerated and gorged on–felt as much as heard. The Leeds rockers have again meticulously—yet somehow naturally—engineered allies out of enemy sounds, melding electronic, blues, rock, and a host of others into a kind of trip-hop opera carried by ambitious (sometimes to a fault) vocals delivered with haunting emotion. Certainly not an album to miss, This is All Yours launches September 22, 2014.
Until then, you can stream the album on iTunes, free. If you pre-order the LP, you’ll also receive bonus track “Lovely Day” free.