Sound — 8
From their delicate and eclectic folktronica sound, to frontman Joe Newman’s glaringly unique singing voice, alt-J have proven to be a polarizing band. Though despite the admiration and ire expressed towards their hipster-bait style and arguably pretentious demeanor, the British trio have risen to the top of the indie music ranks in a short period of time. With their debut album, 2012's "An Awesome Wave," winning a Mercury Prize in the same year, beating out Michael Kiwanuka and The Maccabees among other nominees, alt-J basked in their newfound popularity with their follow-up album, 2014's "This Is All Yours," which reached #1 on Billboard's Top Alternative albums and Rock albums charts, as well as nearly winning a Grammy.
While musically, "This Is All Yours" stuck fairly close to the band's style first heard in "An Awesome Wave," alt-J gear up to try some new things in their third album, "Relaxer." Despite the album bringing less to the table in terms of quantity and runtime, the band make the most of the album's forty minutes with a veritable variety of sounds. Along with meeting sonic expectations both synthetic (in the trip-hoppy "Deadcrush") and organic (in the woodwind-tinged acoustic ballad "Last Year"), the band continue to work in more rock influences , like flirting with dub/psychedelic rock in "In Cold Blood," or executing a Pavement-esque alt rock with a hard panning production job in "Hit Me Like That Snare."
More importantly than the different styles showcased, "Relaxer" excels in showing alt-J's ability to be both modest and grandiose in their songwriting. Whereas the slow-building opener of "3WW" feels par for the course, the journey from morose acoustic fingerpicking to bombastic strings and choir vocals in "Adeline" successfully reaches film score heights, and the rise and fall of the ending "Pleader" stands out nicely for its well-stocked instrumentation and ornate melodies. The cases in which alt-J stick to a low gear, however, are arguably the least captivating moments - while "Last Year" at least has more than one phase in its six minutes, their take on the traditional folk song "House Of The Rising Sun" is a slog.
Lyrics — 7
Gravitating stronger towards alt-J's penchant for eroticism, the lyrics in "Relaxer" come much more straightforward and saucy than what's been seen in their previous albums. The most unabashed case of this is in the sex hostel setting portrayed in "Hit Me Like That Snare," where among other raunchy exposition, Joe Newman's humorous lamenting of choosing an elaborate safe word ("Regret my safe word: one to ten in Japanese / At the party, carpet burning my knees") is called back to in "Last Year" ("June, I learned to count to ten in Japanese"). "3WW" also wears its sexual nature on its sleeve ("Well, that smell of sex / Good like burning wood / The wayward lad lay claim / To two thirsty girls in Hornsea"), but alt-J also show some coy romanticism in songs of distant infatuation, expressed in "Deadcrush" ("Extraordinarily pretty teeth / Beauty lingers out of reach") and "Adeline" ("My Adeline was swimming; sweet Adeline was singing / To the tune of the Royal Canal").
Overall Impression — 8
Perhaps there will always be an air of pretentiousness with alt-J and their music, but the artsy initiatives that they take in "Relaxer" register more as substantial rather than self-indulgent. It may contain some meandering moments, but for the most part, alt-J utilize their time well with a bigger and better array of sounds, and more importantly, knowing exactly when to let songs simmer and when to bring them to a bombastic boil. That sonic chemistry in particular is what makes "Relaxer" shine bright.