Review: alt-j – This Is All Yours

altjtri alt-J was propelled from emerging indie band status to a national news story last year when the band’s debut An Awesome Wave won the Mercury Music Prize. Such a meteoric rise puts pressure on a group, especially when it comes to the traditionally “difficult” second album. But even with the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury, which trimmed the original line-up to a three piece, alt-J has returned with aplomb in the shape of This Is All Yours.   The familiar alt-J signatures are there, from the contrapuntal wordless vocals of ‘Intro’ to the skittish percussive shifts of ‘Nara’. The band’s bizarrely sensual lyricism is back too. What could be more direct, and yet more strange, than “…turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”, from ‘Every Other Freckle’? Near the end of the album there’s a sense of unfinished business from An Awesome Wave being revisited in ‘Bloodflood pt.II’. A soft piano line gives way to ticking beats, layers of brass and warps, just as the lyrics move from the sensual, “Heat shimmers / Hips quiver” to the unsettling, “Dead in the middle of the C O double-M O N” (which relates back to “the C O double-M O N / Flood of blood to the heart” from the debut album’s ‘Bloodflood’).   But there are plenty of surprises. ‘Arrival in Nara’ has a quiet delicacy that is a new direction for the band, with its gentle waltzing guitar providing an enchanting balance to a slightly tinny piano line. ‘Warm Foothills’ and ‘Pusher’ are hymnal folk numbers with squeaking frets of acoustic guitars, a touch of idle whistling, and delicate vocal harmonies. The biggest surprise is perhaps ‘Garden of England’, which is just over one minute of recorders played in canon backed by a hint of birdsong.   Joe Newman’s vocals switch throughout the record from the tender whispery explorations of ‘Choice Kingdom’ to the sharper, hard-mouthed, riffs of ‘Left Hand Free’. The pulsing backdrop behind Newman’s skipping vocal melody on ‘Hunger of the Pine’ pushes alt-J to their most minimal arrangement, before the same track has the band rushing to the other end of the spectrum with layered drones of strings and blasts of brass ushering in a sample from Miley Cyrus’ ‘4×4’. It’s distinctly odd, but odd is alt-J’s modus operandi: the band dares to clash sonic elements rather than play it safe with predictable rhythms or tunes.‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ multi-tracks Newman’s voice through an electronic device so that it is rendered simultaneously as both human and robot. And a halting approach to lyrics, with line breaks in the middle of phrases (“twenty / four seven”), renders the storytelling even more alien. ‘Leaving Nara’ closes the album in a warmer manner, with layers of voices rendered in complex soaring harmonies pitted against an arrangement that brings together ripples of electric strings, airy beats, squelchy bass synths and bright piano.   OnThis Is All Yoursalt-J has lost none of the elements that brought the band success last year: it is packed with originality and innovation. To truly please the ear music should retain the element of surprise,and refrain from the pitfalls of easy melodies and predictable arrangements. If “difficult” is the opposite of “easy” then alt-J has played a masterstroke by presenting us with the gift of a perfectly “difficult” second album.                                                 Words: Amanda Penlington alt-J Website. Twitter. Facebook. Youtube. Soundcloud.

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