alt-J avoid second album syndrome with This Is All Yours

alt-J have one of the most unique sounds of any musical act in recent years. I remember hearing “Breezeblocks” for the first time on Rage one night and immediately seeking out the internet residence of the band, which led me to their Soundcloud. Within a couple of days they’d uploaded their entire debut, An Awesome Wave, for streaming. I’ve never really been big on streaming albums pre-release; I’d rather wait till I can just own it, but I was obsessed I guess. I listened to it constantly, told whoever wouldn’t tell me to shut up about this amazing new band, I pre-ordered the lovely origami style album sleeve from Britain. And what an album it was. Every song was expertly crafted, as if by the steady hands of a master jeweler. But these were no wizened old masters making this music. They were simply four young dudes who’d holed up in a basement for six months honing 13 songs till they were touch-sharp.

Their rise happened quickly. I remember seeing them in June at the Ding Dong Lounge for $15 and standing at the front right against the stage, no barrier or burly guard between the band and I. They were back in October playing Festival Hall for $90. It was that fast, and deservedly so. But the success of An Awesome Wave also meant skepticism about any future releases; a band coming from nowhere with such a stellar record seems like a fluke, and I have to admit I had no idea where they could go from there. After crafting such a distinctive sound for themselves, and that record’s success being so tied to that compete originality, a sophomore effort was never going to have that bolt from the blue element. It was going to sound like An Awesome Wave if they stuck to the sound, and it could suffer by shifting away from it.

What This Is All Yours does is the perfect balancing act. It still sounds like alt-J; there’s the (near) lack of a bass drum, the intricate stop/start rhythms that are the slick cherry-on-top to the shifts between sections, Joe Newman’s eccentric vocals and bookish lyrics, and the gorgeous blend of folk/electronica/alt-rock/dub pop that I suppose is their musical signature. The only thing missing is lyrical references to triangles. Again the listener is greeted by “Intro”, this time trading pitch-shifted vocals for sampled la’s and Nepalese vocal melismas.

Following “Intro” is “Arrival In Nara”, Nara being the famous deer park in the Kansai region of Japan. Nara seems to be a kind of setting for the album, the track that follows “Arrival In Nara” is “Nara”, and the final track of the album is “Leaving Nara”. It forms a kind of mystical background to the record, especially since “Arrival In Nara” is such a gentle piano/fingerpicked guitar tune, it recalls sun coming through leaves and unbroken greenery. The piano melody is especially curious, but it has an edge of melancholy that just adds the most gorgeous wilt. It ends with a bee buzzing past. Then the organ tinged tremolo chords of “Nara” drop with a tasty beat that comes and goes as alt-J pass the song through mezzopiano sequences that pop freshly into the full band chorus, replete with hallelujahs (sung in a complex harmony).

The final song, “Leaving Nara” is nearly break-beat, mixed with the gentle guitar and gorgeous harmonies found on the other tracks. Its distorted beat feels like it’s being pulled apart by deer, ripping in either direction under Newman’s unintelligible vocal. These three songs, as book ends, or pro/epilogues, top and tail the album nicely, and give it the sort of passing-through quality that concept albums generally have, like their characters, places and events exist when you’re not listening to them.

But this isn’t a concept album. It shifts gears constantly, moving from the quirky funk of “Every Other Freckle”, to the blues-rock of “Left Hand Free”, the second radio-friendly single, the mood of which drastically changes with “English Garden”, an instrumental track with two complementary melodies played on flute and birds tweeting in the background. That songs feels like the end of the first half the 13 songs (the same number as An Awesome Wave), as the rest of the songs all have a kind of subdued, folk and trip-hop vibe to them. “Choice Kingdom” is both of those sounds rolled together, with soft piano and arpeggiated synth playing together over a kind of space-ship hum. This song is the perfect sibling to “Hunger of the Pine”, which follows with sonar blips and synth horns that sound like the Inception horns’ coy step-brother. The chorus features a sample of everyone’s favourite female rebel Miley Cyrus, with a dubby bass drum and a counter melody sung in some language I haven’t deciphered.

It’s hard not to simply talk about every song on the album. But they’re all that good. What alt-J have done here is prove they can write songs. They really, really can. There’s a confidence to this record that upon reflection exposes the tightness of their debut as nervous tensions. A couple of songs extend past five minutes, with a couple more stopping just short. The average length of a track on An Awesome Wave is about 3:30, and that minute and a half is noticeable. There’s some genius production on This Is All Yours; the vocal effect on “The Gospel of John Hurt” is alien and affecting when heard through headphones; “Warm Foothills” is what I can only call a triet, with the two male singers of alt-J and a female vocalist singing one word each in a beautiful folk tune. And you won’t hear a more assured lyric this year than “I want to turn you inside out / and lick you like a crisp packet”.

Everything about This Is All Yours is a refinement on the sound that alt-J invented two years ago. They’ve proved beyond doubt that their debut was no fluke. I only wish this album could have been as mind-blowing as An Awesome Wave was at first. I haven’t listened to that album in a long while, so This Is All Yours is a welcome reminder of that sound that was so new then. Although it was always going to suffer from its second album status, This Is All Yours is a grander, more accomplished version of the alt-J concept, and the craft on display, the creativity in evidence really is astounding. I only wonder what a third record would sound like.

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