I can confidently say that RELAXER is one of the oddest albums I’ve heard this year. Though, to be honest, odd is what I’ve come to expect from Alt-J; for a band so downright bizarre – they used turning a crisp packet inside out and licking it as a sexual simile on their last album – it’s weird to think that they’re in the BBC Radio 1 territory of popularity.
Too their credit though, despite hitting the big time with their first album, the band have refused to make their sound more normal or commercial, with each subsequent release being odder than the last. On RELAXER, their third album, this strangeness is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. On some tracks it works incredibly well, and on others, well… It just causes the songs to sound like an absolute mess.
‘3WW’, the opener, is the album’s high-point and perhaps the best song Alt-J have put out in their career so far. The band sings about a young man leaving home for the first time, and having his first sexual experience with two women. The song is slow-going at first, but features some gorgeous instrumentation and really lovely lyrics. The chorus is particular is fantastic, with Joe Newman singing of how ‘I love you’ have become ‘three worn words’ through their overuse in today’s society. It’s a slow and patient opener, but it definitely rewards the listener.
‘In Cold Blood’ is another highlight – though a lot more abstract than ‘3WW’. It’s hard to tell what the song is about entirely – the hook is literally ‘Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool, summer’ – but it’s got a sense of hyperactive energy that’s impossible not to love. It reminds me of some of best songs from the band’s debut, like ‘Breezeblocks’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’, and acts as a nice change of pace among RELAXER’s slower songs.
Two other songs that stand out from the album are ‘Adeline’ and ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Like ‘3WW’, these are a slow and delicate songs. On ‘Adeline’, the band sing about a Tasmanian devil falling in love with a woman he watches swimming. It’s completely bizarre, but the band really sell it, with Newman’s vocal delivery being full of emotion and resignation – the devil knowing he can never be with this woman: ‘Ooh, I wish you well’. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ is the band’s stab at a more folky song – being adapted from an actual traditional song. It’s filled with lush instrumentation as well as some surprisingly serious lyrics.
Despite these highlights, I felt like the band hit a few new lows on RELAXER in terms of quality. As well as featuring some of the band’s best tracks, it also features some of their worst ones… ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ in particular. This song is especially awful, feeling incredibly thrown together with its lyrics about a sex hotel that can’t be described as anything other than nonsense. The vocals are also pretty grating. It doesn’t sit well among the album’s more delicate tracks, following the gorgeous ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, and feels like it’s there to just fill up the tracklist. With RELAXER only being eight songs long, this song’s inclusion feels like a particularly glaring mistake.
There were also a few other tracks I wasn’t too fussed about. ‘Deadcrush’ is about, well, the band’s dead crushes and again has a very thrown together feel to it. It’s not quite as bad as ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it earns its place on the tracklist. The two closing tracks ‘Last Year’ and ‘Pleader’, while pretty, both feel slightly too drawn out. And ‘Pleader’ just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the album and for me doesn’t work well as a closer. This track, along with ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, created the sense that this album was just kind of thrown together. They didn’t have enough ideas to fill out a full album and so this just put out whatever they had lying around.
RELAXER, despite some highs, is a disappointing album. When I saw the band had opted to release a forty minute, eight track album, I hoped that it meant that this would be a more focused release than their previous ones. Instead, it’s pretty much all over the place. It’s definitely worth checking out RELAXER’s highlights – ‘3WW’ and ‘Adeline’ in particularly – but as an album it doesn’t work that well for me.
Best Tracks: ‘3WW’, ‘In Cold Blood’, ‘Adeline’.