A Mercury Prize to their name, a sold-out night at the O2 arena in London, not to mention the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury (the “silent leader” of the band, as he was described by lead-singer and guitarist Joe Newman) all before the release of their second album, meant the pressure was firmly on their second full-length effort – to somehow, attempt to reach that same level of practically unanimous appreciation and success. The four piece, who met while studying Fine Art at Leeds University, amassed an indie-fandom, an almost cult-like following, following the release of their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. Suddenly triangles became everyone’s favourite shape. That same everyone were left waiting with baited breath for its successor’s release. And so what of it?
The first song to be released from the album all the way back in June, was ‘Hunger of The Pine’: alt-J’s ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ moment, in the respect that it’s a slow-burning, swarming, atmospheric track. Intricately woven, it builds to this enormous crescendo and offers the perfectly poised opener to their live shows. It begins with the repetition of two synth notes which knock back and forth as if a tap dripping and utilises a sample from none other than Miley Cyrus (of course!??). Forget any reservations you might have about that; it’s brilliant. “I’m a female rebel” Cyrus spits, as a horn straight out of Yeezy’s ‘Blood On The Leaves’ pounds and pulses, and Newman’s coos wrap themselves around delicate, ominous, French backing vocals from keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. And it builds, and it builds, and it builds.
If ‘Hunger of The Pine builds to a crescendo, the third single to be released from the album, ‘Every Other Freckle’, would um, come to a climax… “I’m going to bed into you, like a cat beds into a bean bag/ Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” Rawrrr. The slightly off-kilter synth solo the song weaves its way to and culminates in (after, most bizarrely, a medieval flute solo) is by far its standout moment. Who would have had Newman down as Leeds art school’s answer to Rihanna? (Don’t worry, no whips and chains here.) But let’s be honest, alt-J’s music always contained that element. ‘Tessellate’ wasn’t about playing Tetris, was it…? But whereas before this might have simmered on the underbelly, alt-J’s naughtier side now scorches on the ham of their snorting pig of sexual lyricism.
What I loved about An Awesome Wave were those grinding, sexy trip-hop beats that separated them from their indie-pop peers. This Is All Yours lacks that and as a result, I can’t but help feeling that – while it has its standout moments – it’s lacking something.
Credit given where credit is due, ‘Every Other Freckle’ does genuinely surprise you as it twists and turns and smokes and snarls. The same, perhaps, cannot be said of the rest of the album. Essentially, it has two introductions in the form of ‘Intro’ and ‘Arrival In Nara’ (the first of a three-part collection, which also includes ‘Nara’ and ‘Leaving Nara‘). Just as the beats grinds in following storming acapella “la la las” that begin ‘Intro’, Arrival In Nara’ interjects; a soporific, down-beat track which, while pleasant listening, just feels out of place as the second song in. The sounds of buzzing bees and chirping birds which close out the track, are also extremely unsettling if you happen to be wearing headphones while listening to the album in public, and inexplicably begin swatting your ear, like a deranged Luna Lovegood babbling on about those ruddy nargles.
‘Left Hand Free’, the seond single that was released from This Is All Yours, is also mis-step. An obvious pandering to US radio stations with its blues-rock feel, and even Newman’s American twangs, there is very little of what we have come to define as alt-J’s unique DNA, on show. ‘Choice Kingdom’ and ‘Pusher’, two softer affairs, are also largely forgettable. In the form of ‘Warm Foothills’ and ‘Bloodflood Pt.II’, however, alt-J excel themselves and provide two standout moments. The former splices Newman’s vocals with those of Conor Oberest, Lianne La Havas, Sivu and Marika Hackman. With its whistling, wistful guitar plucks and piano strokes, it’s a perfect example how alt-J can combine their ingenuity with an understated sound and create something really quite astonishing. Beautiful even. ‘Bloodflood Pt. II’ harks back to its namesake from the first album, and is ravishing in its complexity, intricate details and yet begins and finishes with the same simple strikes of the piano.
What I loved about An Awesome Wave were those grinding, sexy trip-hop beats that separated them from their indie-pop peers. This Is All Yours lacks that and as a result, I can’t but help feeling that – while it has its standout moments – it’s lacking something. Calls for them to headline Glastonbury next year, just as Oasis and the Arctic Monkeys did after the release of their second albums, seem misjudged. If This Is All Yours really is all mine, I’ll gladly accept that and listen to it over and over again. But I’ve got a feeling it’s yours too. And I think you should listen to it as well. But don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling a sense of wanting more from these guys, because they’ve definitely got it in their locker.
Key Tracks: ‘Hunger of the Pine’, ‘Warm Foothills’, ‘Bloodflood Pt.II’