Alt-J returns with cinematic, compact album ‘Relaxer’

Atlantic Records/Courtesy
alt-J Relaxer | Atlantic Records
Grade: A-

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In a recent article, I discussed the strengths of short albums in an industry suffused by bloatedness and fluff — qualities that can’t be ascribed to Relaxer, the latest release from British trio alt-J. With only eight tracks, the album is the shortest the band has released, but its sparse tracklisting veils a bursting 40 minutes of music — a runtime driven by an average song length of nearly five minutes.

Tracklist aside, the interior workings of Relaxer are anything but sparse. Despite the limited space, the compositions presented here are some of the most expansive the band has produced, suffused with lush soundscapes and the introduction of new instruments to the band’s inventory.

Where the band’s previous albums An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours kept the musical production within the group — songs were driven by Joe Newman’s characteristic guitar plucking and Gus Unger-Hamilton’s synthy keyboards — Relaxer features a bonafide brass section and orchestra on most tracks.  

These songs are also some of the most patient — album opener “3WW” takes the better part of two minutes to arrive at any lyrics, choosing instead to build concepts in gentle, sweeping strokes of violins and vocals. By the end of the song, we’ve been introduced to the swelling strings that underscore much of Relaxer, as well as a surprisingly novel way of addressing those “three worn words” — “I just want to love you in my own language,” singer Joe Newman pleads in his characteristic falsetto over a twinkling piano line.

Each song on Relaxer is a universe unto itself. From the biting guitar and jubilant brass section of “In Cold Blood” to the cinematic storytelling of “Adeline,” — in which a Tasmanian devil falls in love with a swimming woman — alt-J has imbued its latest release not only with an emotional depth entirely unbecoming of its length, but with the full breadth of the band’s sonic capabilities, from gentle pastorals to abrasive grinds. “Fuck you! I’ll do what I wanna do,” the band sings at the end of “Hit Me Like That Snare,” a track in outright rebellion against its soft-treading neighbors.  

That rebellion borders terrifyingly close to the edge of excessiveness — with only eight tracks, there is little room for deviation from the narrative arc the band has chosen. And though that arc feels far tighter than on previous releases, “Pleader” feels an odd choice as album closer, with its instrumental sections of Spanish-tinged strings sounding like something out of a Wes Anderson film score.

Ultimately, alt-J fans won’t find Relaxer replete with radio-friendly singles to instantly latch onto. But the band has announced a willingness to part with the safety of single-dominated records which feature instant-classics like “Breezeblocks” and “Left Hand Free” but wander incoherently at an album scale. The former Leeds roommates have always had a distinctive style and always have a repertoire of strange and enticing songs to draw from. Relaxer is still weird, but for the first time for the band, steps beyond a reliance on style into a search for substance.

Imad Pasha is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.