The English band Alt-J’s first album, 2012’s An Awesome Wave, was certifiable Mood Music™. Spacey in vibe and well-sequenced, it’s the type of album you listen to when you have a lot of time on your hands, not because there’s anything deep to decipher but for the opposite reason — because it sounds cool without demanding close attention. By their second album, 2014’s This Is All Yours, Alt-J seemed to have found the limits of this diffuse approach. With its latest, Relaxer, the band attempts a new direction, writing world-weary stories about the human willingness to return to scenes and spaces that gradually erode us.
Alt-J have a penchant for starting their albums wondrously, and Relaxer is no exception. “3WW” begins with the tale of “a wayward lad” waking up in a barren wilderness with only “the ground to be his bed” and “the sky his awning.” Gus Unger-Hamilton’s dry, desert-scene-setting tenor gives way to Joe Newman’s nasal warble, which zaps some electricity in the sand: “Neon, neon, neon / A blue neon lamp in a midnight country field.” The song’s narrator ends up in a surreal tryst with two women, voiced by Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell; while he thinks he’s found love, they remind him, “Love is just a button we pressed / Last night by the campfire.” It’s a well-rehearsed theme, but it works, in part because of the way Alt-J links the idea of love’s gradual withering to the literal erosion of natural majesties like the English coastline.
The band explores this thematic pairing throughout the album. “In Cold Blood” is a grave and buzzed rock joint that begins clumsily, with vintage Alt-J pretension — Newman sings the band’s name in binary, for some reason — but quickly turns terrifyingly real, depicting a stabbing at a pool party. The function turns sour when a kid named Cali (which, yes, is heavy-handed AF) sinks “like a bleeding stone / All above crowd around, so fucking loud.” Even when we’re surrounded by so many other people, the band seems to suggest, we’re only as aware of those sinking to the bottom as we will ourselves to be. But what the song gains in dark emotional resonance during the verses it quickly loses during the chorus, whose formulaic coos and “la la la”s flatten the song’s vividness.
Some of the album’s most telling work is hamstrung by graceless images that challenge the border between functional, literary absurdity and sophomoric awkwardness. “Adeline,” a song seeking to articulate how it feels when gaps begin to widen in relationships, is a soft, twinkly ballad inexplicably attached to a creepy story about a Tasmanian devil watching (stalking?) a woman it loves swimming in the Royal Canal. “Deadcrush” is similarly bizarre in its framing: The title is meant literally, as the band spends the song’s verses debating which deceased women from history they find most attractive. In Newman’s case, the lucky gal is photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, while Unger-Hamilton chooses the more regal and decayed Anne Boleyn. We can stretch ourselves to believe this is just another allusion to love persisting beyond various kinds of endings, but I’m almost positive we could’ve gotten there without the necrophilia.
The central conundrum with Alt-J’s music is that while it’s almost always tastefully arranged, with roots in Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and The Kinks, the band rarely displays the charm and wit needed to make those textures interesting over the course of an album. Relaxer takes them further than before, but tracks like “Deadcrush” and the brash, innuendo-filled “Hit Me Like That Snare” imply that the band still has a ways to go — even if the album’s central idea, touching on the reciprocal nature of humanity’s unwillingness to deal with internal and environmental erosion, is a relevant one.
For the U.K., as for us in America, climate change is an issue of dire importance. This past February, climate experts at Leeds University and the Climate Coalition released a report detailing the ways that increased rainfall and flooding in the U.K. are slowly abrading national sites both natural and man-made. Over the past 50 years, rains have gradually cut into the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs along the Birling Gap, placing homeowners and policy makers in the peculiar position of choosing whether to lose their homes or adhere to the old Churchillian rhetoric of “holding the line.” Floods transformed the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s home from venerated idyll to swampy dilapidation in a matter of months. As a band so inspired by depictions of nature in British literature — the final song on Relaxer, “Pleader,” borrows heavily from the work of novelist Richard Llewellyn with its refrain, “How green, how green was my valley?” — it stands to reason that Alt-J would be keenly aware of how a worn world can mirror a worn human spirit. But as much as the band tugs at our hearts to varying emotional degrees, the inconsistent execution in its storytelling takes away from the message.