Alt-J’s debut album, An Awesome Wave (2012)received mixed reception upon release. “You either like it or you don’t”, occurs to me as the best way to shrug off this divergence. For some, the uncertainty of “what’s gonna happen next?” is exhilarating and freeing, for others the album is simply too busy – a myriad of instruments interlaced with unique but quirky vocals.
The album stretches across several genres (indie, rock, pop, experimental, psychedelic folk) and the transition from song to song is not seamless, but quite abrupt at times. The three interludes do, however, moderate this haphazard journey through the album. For some this is appealing because it kicks back against Industry which sometimes mindlessly promotes the mass production of generic sounds. For others this abstruseness is somewhat unnerving. Nevertheless, this resistance has not been universal and, for the most part, the album has been received with enthusiasm, accruing the UK Barclycard Mercury Prize and reaching the thirteenth spot on UK Albums Charts in 2013. It also featured in the charts of Belgium, France, Netherlands and Switzerland.
Alt-J’s symbol, Δ (Delta which is created by pressing Alt-J on a Mac keyboard), served as inspiration for both their name and sound. The symbol defines mathematical change, and could thus bolster their pursuit of a novel sound. In some ways Alt-J’s sound is reminiscent of Imagine Dragons, with harmonising acapella featuring alongside synthesisers, bass drops, and eclectic guitar and piano solos. The album begins with an intro that readily introduces their unique blend and is a good measure of what’s to be expected of the rest of the album.
The arbitrary nature of their sound is matched by their random lyrics, which speak, for the most part of the quizzical side of relationships, perhaps best captured by the lyrics in “Breezeblocks”: ‘Please don’t go, please don’t go / I love you so, I love you so / Please break my heart, hey’ or in “Matilda”: ‘My defeat sleeps top to toe with her success.’
Many of the songs speak of love-hate relationships, and dealing with the anguish that comes with a breakup. This theme, of the good, the bad and the ugly, if you will, is echoed throughout the album. For example, only the first of the three interludes has lyrics which speak of a girl with a serious case of OCD, who cannot walk but 18 steps without completing a ritual in which she looks to the sky for guidance and protection, declaring the ‘balance of life is in the ripe and ruin’.
I found this album to be musically compelling. Lyrics aside, the sound is exceptional in the sense that I’ve never heard anything like it before. Alt-J have recently announced that one of their members, Gwil Sainsbury, has left. However, they have already planned to release their new album, This Is All Yours, come September 2014. I, for one, am waiting in anticipation for its release.
Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Infectious Records, 2012)