Right, your band have won a Mercury, you book a big arena tour (they play O3 Arena in Dublin on Saturday), you have a sanctioned Miley Cyrus sample in the bag. What do you do next? Use the first album as a formula? Collaborate with Iggy Azalea? Get 2Chainz on a guest verse?
No, you strip down everything that people love about your music into something even more beguiling. Alt-J, the band who famously don’t use cymbals on their drum kits, have made an even more potent reduction of their odd musical sauce.
This Is All Yours is a quiet, slow record that tones down the band’s debut album eclecticism but makes up for it by being one of the most sumptuous records you’ll hear this year.
The three songs released prior to the album’s actual date, ‘Hunger Of The Pine’, ‘Every Other Freckle’ and ‘Left Hand Free’ are standalone tracks. ‘Every Other Freckle’ is the closest the band get to a ‘Tessellate’ with lyrics like “I’m gonna paw, paw at you like a cat paws at my woolen jumper” or the memorable “Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet. ‘Hunger Of The Pine’ is an epic construct making a sweeping scape from a heart bruised by a lover, bleeps, Miley Cyrus sample, and avant-pop shades. ‘Left Hand Free’ meanwhile, the self-described “least Alt-J song ever” is the most grating track here, a Levis ad-style rock song only saved by vocalist Joe Newman’s warbled purr.
Those three tracks suggest an album with a multi-faceted lean, but it’s really all soundscapes and delicate vistas. Arrangements caress the vocals like a warm hug with precision and imagination. The album’s first three songs leaps into the void: ‘Intro’, ‘Arrival In Nara’ and ‘Nara’ establish the mood through threadbare harmonic coos, drums let loose with folksy strings, meandering piano, whispered vocals with Nara, a place in Japan occupied by deer, adding further mystique to the cryptic cinematic arrangements.
Birdsong and olde English folk vintage recorder interludes reinforce the natural world’s fingerprints on This Is All Yours as does references to rare creatures, blue dragonflies and quelea birds.
‘Warm Foothills’ is the album’s most beautiful track, and it may well be one of the tracks of the year. On it, the interpolating vocals of Newman, Conor Oberst, Marika Hackman, Lianne La Havas and Sivu finish each other’s sentences in a romantic gender-morphing fashion to a simple acoustic folk backing augmented by a whistle solo and subtle strings. “I tie my life to your balloon and let it go.”
The imagery is vivid on This Is All Yours. The lyrics of ‘Nara’ triptych’s finale ‘Leaving Nara’, “I’ll bury my hands deep / into the mane of my lover,” has a callback to an earlier ‘Arrival in Nara’ lyric – “I’ve found a love to love like no other can / he’s found me, my Aslan.” ‘The Gospel Of John Hurt’ takes inspiration from the actor’s famous chest-splattering death scene (“Chest bursts like John Hurt”), ‘Nara’ drowns its subject (“She never finds her bearings / Sucking splash into her lungs”), and ‘Pusher’ pines for indie-movie love (“We could hold hands for fifteen minutes in the sauna”) while ‘Choice Kingdom’ has some things to say about their home country (“Rule Britannia / Bright ideas hide in caves.”)
Those more direct lyrics are delivered in a less idiosyncratic manner than on An Awesome Wave because the arrangements are less forced into strangeness.
Rather than codify their sound into something that will easily fit that arena tour, Alt-J have made a moving mimimalist album of substantial songs with their trademark embedded deep.