Despite the departure of founding member Gwil Sainsbury eighteen months later, they still managed to maintain their momentum and kept the great reviews coming on second album This Is All Yours.
Their third album, Relaxer, saw their critical standing cool slightly, but they still managed to pick up a Mercury Prize nomination and subsequently release a companion record – Reduxer – that gave the whole album a hip-hop inspired makeover and managed to come out sounding almost as good as the original.
Their sound – a hybrid of smooth MOR and jagged indie rock – has remained steadfast and commercially appealing throughout, with many of their songs finding second lives on popular soundtracks from FIFA to Sons of Anarchy to Marvel blockbusters (“Left Hand Free” was Spider-Man’s personal theme music in Captain America: Civil War).
Returning after five years, and in the midst of a pandemic that shows limited signs of coming to a true conclusion, Alt-J show no signs of ring rust. The trio – Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Sonny Green and Joe Newman – are once again joined by producer Charlie Andrew, and once again have produced an instantly recognisable, highly enjoyable 40-odd minutes worth of experimental indie pop.
And so the album opens with an ode to Coca Cola. “Bane”, which runs a little long at just over five minutes, features layers of glassy guitar and some almost choral chanting. It’s a soft-touch, breezy opener that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
“Hard Drive Gold”, a suitably silly number about the rise and fall of the cryptocurrency market. Elsewhere you have stories about serial killers (“Losing My Mind”), love (“Powders”), and the pandemic (“Get Better”) – all set to a customarily glossy palette of acoustic guitars, clean electronic textures and fuzzy atmospherics.
The clear highlight is the Beck-flavoured “U&ME”, which features some raucous guitar skronk and an addictive, insistent percussive rhythm. It sums up what Alt-J do best, and it showcases their ability to craft hooks from unlikely sources.
The album is – as expected – a well-crafted, sonically flawless work. What it lacks in heart (as with all of their albums, there’s very little humanity in the sound or the lyrics) it more than makes up for in style and finesse, and it continues the band’s run of producing quality records.
At this point, it’s increasingly hard to think of the band on any other terms than their own, as they really do sound like nobody else but themselves. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another five years for the next one.