Album Review: Alt-J – The Dream

ALBUM REVIEW: alt-J – The Dream | XS Noize | Online Music Magazine

Alt-J are a weird one. Upon the announcement of new material fans simultaneously know exactly what to expect and have no idea what they’re about to hear. I must admit that I have been… very late to the Alt-J party, having recently taken a crash course in their discography and catching the all too hard to describe bug. Their mix of dreamy soundscapes and intricate lyricism makes for a band that, much like great directors, requires their work to be revisited again and again. I must admit that their debut, An Awesome Wave, didn’t blow me away as I had expected the mercury prize winner to initially. It took me a while to realise the slow burn affect it was having on me, even days after listening to it. This, perhaps, is what is most interesting about their upcoming release, The Dream. An album which is probably their most upfront to date. For the moment this feels incredibly refreshing to be able to live with an Alt-J album immediately, but I suppose it remains to be seen if it will stay with me as the rest of their discography has. 

The opening track, Bane, is one of the more passive tracks on the album, which is why I appreciate the choice to have it as an introduction to the LP. It’s everything Alt-J have always been, which does unfortunately mean that it passes you by within the context of the rest of the album, however that’s not to say that the band don’t hit all their marks, of course they do. Track two and three, singles U&ME and Hard Drive Gold are some of the most accessible tracks they have ever released, with the later dripping in a sort of Black Keys haze. Usually, accessibility is linked with negativity within criticism but this is not my intention in the slightest, the way in which they breakaway from ‘Alt-J’s sound’ without feeling like a cheap sell-out is so listenable. It’s really as if the band have brought the mainstream to them with these two tracks. Track four, Happier When You’re Gone, is a beautifully melancholic cut that feels like an early moment of deliberation taken after the jubilant comedy and sheen of the first couple of tracks.

The Actor is a riffy return to form. A look at an actors (shock) struggle with life, work and drugs in LA. With beautiful backing vocals repeating “He’s never gonna make it in LA” this is comfortably one of the strongest tracks on the album and one that flexes every muscle, instrumental, vocal and lyrical, that the band has. This truly feels like a band that have lived in the valley their whole lives, not three lads who met at Leeds uni. Get Better follows and is another simple track that is beautiful in its subtle intricacies and semi-lullaby love song lyrics. At this point it starts to dawn on the listener that what they are hearing could quite possibly be the bands best work, granted we are only half way, but at its worst the first half of The Dream is still some of the bands best work. To go off on a brief tangent I recently watched (and fell in love with) Tick, Tick… Boom, a fantastic look at the pressures of turning 30 and having not achieved anything. This idea that turning 30 is huge milestone for creatives is one that lives true for Alt-J. The way in which this album feels, especially compared to their previous album which I personally felt was their weakest work, is breath taking and something that can only come with the maturity of reflection.

The second half of the album opens with Chicago and Philadelphia two track that feel haunting and focussed in their own way, with the later having an almost comedic Halloween piano riff in the chorus and at times funny backing vocals that are accentuated by just how on point the rest of the vocal performances are throughout the rest of the album. Walk A Mile then begins as if you are remembering a barber shop quartet you heard 50 years ago before falling into the circular repetition of a drum beat and the lyrics “At last my baby has walked a mile in my shoes”. This is the longest cut on the album and unfortunately fails to go anywhere with its 6:30 minuet run time. That being said the world that it drops you into at the beginning, though it may not change, is still a tranquil one that I could live in for a long time. Perhaps not a track that you would rush to put on but one that would make you hate a person if they skipped it. 

The longest track is followed by the shortest, Delta, clocking in at exactly 1 minuet it is a beautiful acapella track that, despite the repeated lyric “I’m not a praying man but ill kneel to that” feels like something that could be heard at Sunday mass in the deep south and does as much in its short life span that many artists have done in their careers. The penultimate track, Losing My Mind utilises the song title as a chorus, “I’m losing my mind” being repeated over and over despite the rest of the song making the listener feel quite the opposite. Incredibly peaceful and centred this only starts to become menacing in the last minute as a climb begins to the song’s conclusion. More than any other track on the album this cut is cinematic in its every being. Closing the album is Powders, the closest that this album ever comes to a soul song with as much smoke surrounding it as one can imagine coming from the collective minds of Alt-J. With a beautiful guitar solo and vocals that, of course have been fantastic throughout, but still manage to stand out as stunning. Alt-J have never been a band that will be rushed and the closing track, much like the opener, is why no one ever wants them to.

So… is this their best album? I have to say I think it is. The second half, for now, feels more of an academic experience than the first half, for better and for worse. However, I feel that is the traditional Alt-j-ism (there must be a better way to say that) of having an album requiring revisits. All I can say is that this album, more so than any other doesn’t require revisits, it demands it.

‘The Dream’ will be released via Infectious records on 11 February 2022