When your album only has eight tracks, you don’t have room for songs that sound too much alike. Thankfully, the English indie rock band Alt-J seems to know this. On its third LP, Relaxer, the tracks complement each other but never copy each other, combining to make an album that feels very much like a cohesive work of art rather than simply a collection of songs. Experimental and cinematic, Relaxer has enough arresting details to make listening to it an intriguing experience every time.
Despite its name, Relaxer is not an entirely relaxing album. It’s true that many of its songs move along at a slow pace; yet there’s always an undercurrent of urgency that runs throughout them, emphasizing the lyrics’ theme of complicated relationships. This juxtaposition is evident from the start of “3WW” (a.k.a. “three worn words,” a.k.a. “I love you”), the album’s opener. It’s highly ambitious, but it hits every mark it aims for. Its first two minutes are a haunting instrumental that sounds like a film score.
Eventually, band members Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman begin to sing, telling a tale of a “wayward lad”’s journey. It initially sounds idyllic, but after the chorus, we learn of the lad’s run-in with unrequited love, made more solemn by Ellie Roswell’s ethereal guest vocals. It’s a wonderful set-up for the album’s exploration of doomed romance.
Next up is the strikingly different “In Cold Blood.” While it feels unfair to give any of Relaxer’s tracks the distinction of being the album’s crown jewel, this song can at least be called a perfect single and a serious contender for “Best Alternative Rock Song of the Year.” To get an idea of what it sounds like, imagine what would happen if The Black Keys and Foster the People collaborated to create the soundtrack for the pivotal showdown scene in an action movie. It starts with a scrambled-up spelling of Alt-J’s name in binary, like Mike WiLL Made-It announcing his name at the beginning of a track but more clever. Then the verses build drama with a variety of intriguing instruments, such as organs and horns. The song manages to sound both catchy and intense due to two successful hooks: a classic “la la la” refrain and the repetition of the words “pool,” “summer,” and “killer,” evoking images of Gatsby’s sad fate (intentionally?). The lyrics are mysterious, but that doesn’t put a damper on the fun you can have singing along.
“House of the Rising Sun” follows. Although it is a cover of the folk classic made famous by The Animals, it takes the source material in a completely different direction. Gone are The Animals’ organ riffs and strict adherence to a repeated melody; instead, Joe Newman sings about the titular house over dreamy, serene instrumentation, adding the ironic lyric “It’s a happy, happy, happy fun day, day.” Then there’s “Hit Me Like That Snare,” which is arguably the only moment when a song feels incongruous on the album. While the psychedelic vibe, like a more sinister version of MGMT, is a great sonic direction for the band, the overtly sexual lyrics are a bit startling on the overall subtle album. “Deadcrush,” on the other hand, is one of Relaxer’s highlights. From the hip-hop beat to the falsetto vocals to the unique subject matter (crushes on deceased people, stylishly referred to as “DC”s in the lyrics), it sounds almost like something Damon Albarn would create.
The trifecta of “Adeline,” “Last Year,” and “Pleader,” the album’s three longest songs, is an impactful way to end the album. “Adeline” is the story of an unrequited romance set to booming percussion and haunting backing vocals that make it sound like it takes place in some mystical kingdom. (It samples a Hans Zimmer melody, for the record.) Its lyrics prove the power of a strategic pronoun change—when Newman stops singing “I wish you well” and starts singing “I wish her well,” the acknowledgement of the distance between the song’s two protagonists is tragic. “Last Year” contains lyrical nods to the other tracks in the album and features a gorgeous verse sung by Marika Hackman—a verse that, in a bittersweet turn of events, is supposed to serve as a song sung at a funeral. “Pleader” is dark and eerie at first; then a flute melody comes in, and it grows uplifting. It ends with the confluence of multiple voices, resembling the finale of some highly unique musical.
Relaxer is the kind of album that deserves to be listened to with an open, attentive mind. Intricate and thoughtful from start to finish, it’s a truly immersive journey.