alt-J’s 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave, winner of that fall’s Mercury Prize, remains my favorite album released since the turn of the century, a hypnotic, hypercreative, genre-bending masterwork that plays with sounds, tempos, and tension to subvert typical rock song structures without every losing sight of the critical elements of melody and rhythm. The album featured stunning production that offered clear, precise sounds in a minimalist framework, while the then-quartet carried lyrical and musical themes across multiple tracks to present the listener with a diverse yet cohesive whole. The Mercury Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving album – last year’s snoozer would be a perfect example – but alt-J deserved it as much as any other winner ever had. (Of course, Pitchfork trashed the album, shocking no one.)
That means that expectations, mine and the music world’s, have run very high with the long crescendo to today’s release of This Is All Yours, the sophomore album from alt-J, now a trio after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury. The new disc moves the band in a direct I didn’t anticipate, opting for slower tempos and brighter sounds, creating a more melancholy record overall, one with fewer standout melodies than An Awesome Wave and a muddled production quality that contrasts with the precision of its predecessor’s. It is every bit as bizarre a record as you’d expect from a band that named itself after a keyboard combination (their name is technically Δ) and that produced an album as weird as their debut. It is less consistent than their first record, but it is never, ever dull.
The three singles released from This is All Yours showcase the album’s brilliance alongside its inconsistency. “Hunger of the Pine” works from a trip-hop foundation, layers guitarist Joe Newman’s languorous, high-pitched vocals – occasionally delivering entire lines without changing the note – over keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s baritone, only to throw in a sample of Miley Cyrus incongruously singing “I’m a female rebel” in the chorus. “Left Hand Free,” a song the boys have acknowledged they wrote because their label’s A&R man said he didn’t hear a single from the album, listens like a deadpan parody of American indie or jangle-pop, with suitably ridiculous lyrics that still manage to slip in the kind of literary allusions that they used so well on An Awesome Wave. The third single, “Every Other Freckle,” is the album’s best song, bridging the gap between those first two songs in a way that recalls their first album’s highest points, shifting gears suddenly between tempos or even genres, with lyrical flourishes that offer competing interpretations (the transition from touching to creepy in “I wanna bed into you, like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet” is a highlight of their career) and perfectly timed hard-stops before the next miniature movement begins. The three songs don’t really sound at all like they’d come from the same band, with an almost anti-commercial song in “Hunger of the Pine” alongside the disposable “Left Hand Free,” diversity without the explosive creativity of the band’s first record.
Instead, the trio appear to have channeled their creativity into crafting lush soundscapes like the gorgeous acoustic track “Warm Foothills,” which features vocals from no fewer than four guest singers, including Lianne La Havas, whom alt-J beat out for the Mercury Prize two years ago. The vocals are stitched together to give you odd transitions before we get our payoff in beautiful harmonies – although there’s no big finish or massive textural shift as you might have expected on An Awesome Wave. The lyrics of the Alien-inspired “The Gospel of John Hurt” blend that film’s mythology (it doesn’t go well for Hurt’s character) with the Book of Jeremiah, over a tripartite backing track, starting with a xylophone-heavy introductory passage, leading to a sluggish passage where we get the band spelling out a key word (as on “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood”) before the guitar moves to the front in the final, cathartic movement. How that song can be followed with the throwaway acoustic track “Pusher” is one of the most puzzling aspects of the disc; I could have done without “Pusher” entirely, but after one of This is All Yours‘ strongest, most intense songs, it dissolves the momentum the band has just built up with the previous song.
alt-J have always been fond of referring back to their own songs, and do so explicitly with “Bloodflood pt. II,” which brings back both “Bloodflood” and “Fitzpleasure” from their first album, reusing certain lyrics and musical themes but reworking them into new settings while carrying over the violence implicit in “Fitzpleasure,” which itself drew from the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn. They’re also big on unusual covers, and the album’s bonus track completely deconstructs Bill Withers’ classic soul song “Lovely Day” and builds it back up with multiple flows of shimmering keyboard lines that move over you like fluids of varying viscosities – to the point where you might only recognize the original track by the lyrics.
The brief review by the Guardian compared This is All Yours to Radiohead’s Kid A for their shared abandonment of the traditional rock format in favor of playing with sounds and textures, but Radiohead’s departure was far more shocking – here was one of the greatest straight-up rock bands in history, coming off an album that should have won every award for which it could possibly have been eligible, metaphorically lighting its guitars on fire to play with keyboards and other synthetic sounds. alt-J had no such sound to abandon, so their capacity to shock us more than their debut already did so is muted.
This is All Yours includes repetition of themes and imagery in its lyrics, just as their first album did, here with recurring ruminations on loss and dependence in relationships, and several songs refer to the African quelea, a nomadic passerine bird of African that travels in large flocks, or other flying creatures; as well as to lungs, to waves, or to the sea. Their lyrics are more cryptic and less narrative this time around; most songs on An Awesome Wave told a story somewhere, while the songs on This is All Yours have fewer lyrics overall and none tells a complete story from beginning to end. That may be the most shocking shift of the album, rather than the change in music – the way that alt-J thinks about crafting a single song, or an album as a collection of songs, seems to have changed, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t reproduce the style of their first album, which was five years in the making. This is All Yours comes out only two years and a few months after their debut, but in many ways feels more ambitious and bold. It is uneven compared to their debut, and presents a less immersive listening experience, but also shows a group unwilling or unable to rest on their laurels, for whom an effort that doesn’t match their best work can still be among the most important and impressive albums of the year.