The third album from the British fuss-rockers features tastefully trimmed string arrangements, chamber woodwinds, and terminal boredom.
Bad music, after all, earns its distinction. You have to seize someone by the lapels, dominate their senses, to give them the chance to despise you. It requires, if not bravery, then at least audacity, and alt-J have never been audacious. The biggest offense one could take is the way Joe Newman sings through his nose, like a mean-spirited hobbit mocking the singing voice of another hobbit. But it is instantly easy to hear how 2012’s An Awesome Wave managed its bloodless coup, one distracted pair of earbuds at a time—most of the album is a comforting jumble of clicks, coos, and hums. The music had no center, but its edges were soothing, and if you had a few hours to kill at a laundromat, it synced pleasingly with your silently tumbling socks.
Their beige and mostly tuneless second album maintained this modest course through the choppy seas of festival bookings and departing band members, but on RELAXER, alt-J have, just maybe, grown a little used to success. They feel, perhaps, ready to stretch, to dip their toes into new styles and ready to take a few, you know, risks.
And this must be how we find ourselves confronting “Hit Me Like That Snare,” the fourth song on RELAXER and the first proudly, magnetically awful thing they’ve ever done. Committed alt-J fans are probably already used to Joe Newman’s unique touch with sexual imagery—for such an unassuming group, they sing often, and zealously, about fucking, or at least what fucking might be like, as interpreted by a befuddled AI. But because all words turned to consonant-free mush in his mouth, millions of festival-goers were likely and mercifully unaware they were dancing to a chorus of, “In your snatch fits pleasure/Broom-shaped pleasure” (”Fitzpleasure”). He may as well have been warbling roast chicken recipes.
On “Hit Me Like That Snare,” Newman appears to be trying to earnestly to swagger. Each word is ruthlessly audible as he sets the most ludicrous sex scene in rock history:
I’m at the door at a quarter to four
Poppers popping baby might take some more
I’m fucking loose, you’re gorgeous, I don’t care
Come closer, baby, slap me like that snare
‘Moon Shaped Pool’ plays in the velvet cell
Green neon sign reading ‘Welcome to hell’
Leather slings fall like oxygen masks
We’re going down, fuck my life in half.
The idea of an album full of this sort of blazing wreckage is perversely exciting, in the same way that a screaming, relationship-ending fight technically enlivens a bad party. But alas, RELAXER doesn’t have the lunatic conviction to embrace oblivion. The rest settles safely back into the mild, featureless middle distance, a realm of tastefully trimmed string arrangements, chamber woodwinds, and terminal boredom. They’ve cut back the anxious fidgets, clicks, and buzzes that textured their music and relinquish any claim to idiosyncrasy they might have had.
“Last Year” is a sedate meditation on death and grief featuring a placid vocal turn from English singer-songwriter Marika Hackman and an immaculately recorded oboe solo, which the song pauses for respectfully like a row of baby ducks crossing its path. “House of the Rising Sun” dials back the heat of the folk standard to the temperature of rapidly cooling tea. “3WW” begins the album with a soft-lit minute of finger-picked guitar before introducing a sound in the background that sounds suspiciously like someone snoring.
The truth is that alt-J have never had an identity, really, apart from Newman’s mangled lyrics and the fidgety, distracted arrangements of their songs. RELAXER shows us what remains after those quirks are dialed back: some perfectly nice, perfectly blank lads who have no idea why they are standing in front of you and even less of an idea what to say.