First things first: Alt-J are not from this planet. They are space aliens.
This Is All Yours, the band's second LP, is a remarkable piece of work. It may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it's got a few important things in the bag: good songs, good sounds, and originality.
Following their widely successful 2012 debut album, An Awesome Wave, there has been a lot of curiosity about what this album would sound like. How would the band follow such an interesting and unusual record? How would they respond to losing founding member Gwil Sainsbury (who left the band earlier this year)?
The three singles that were released ahead of the album, "Hunger of the Pine," "Left Hand Free," and "Every Other Freckle," are interesting alternative / indie rock songs that show continuation and growth from the first record. They are beyond weird, but they are brilliantly executed pop tunes that show deft hand in crafting groove, melody, harmony, hook, and lyrics. Sampling Miley Cyrus on "Hunger of the Pine" was risky, although the end result sounds great. The new singles really carry the album, along with a few other highlights like "Nara" and "The Gospel of John Hurt."
The new singles have generally done better on the charts than older singles like "Breezeblocks," "Tessellate," "Fitzpleasure," and "Matilda." Over time, it will perhaps be a source of debate for music fans which album is better, but personally, I prefer almost everything about An Awesome Wave over This Is All Yours. The first record just rocks harder and sounds cooler. The loss of Gwil might have been bigger than anyone anticipated, as that signature overdriven bass is conspicuously absent from most of this record, with the exception of a few songs.
My biggest problem with this album is that several of the songs are so slow and soft that they completely kill the momentum as a rock record. In my opinion, Alt-J are at their best when they balance the slow folky stuff with uptempo rock that keeps things moving. Drummer Thom Green is one of the grooviest and most unique drummers in the world, and it's not a good thing that his drumming is far less prominent on This Is All Yours than it was on An Awesome Wave. There is no drumming at all on 3 songs: "Arrival In Nara," "Garden of England - Interlude," and "Pusher." On other songs, there is so little drumming that it's barely noticeable. Sure, on the first album there was no drumming on the 3 interlude tracks and the album closer, "Hand-Made," but to me he was much more of a driving force on that first album.
Make no mistake about it: This is a kinder, gentler Alt-J. On This Is All Yours, the band has made a very light and soft record with only a few moments of dark edginess. Experimenting with elements like synths, strings, samples, and studio effects ends up keeping things interesting, and the acoustic guitar songs do have merit. Even so, I love rock music, and I would have liked more drums and electric guitar. As a listener, I found the beginning of the album to be great, and the end of the album to be a little boring. The slow, weary songs just didn't have enough flavor to make them worthwhile.
You can't discuss Alt-J without discussing the vocals. Lead vocalist Joe Newman has a range of voices, including one that reminds me of Adam Sandler in his early '90s glory. The lyrics are usually difficult to hear and understand, but they still flow beautifully. The overall effect is a sense of mystery behind what these songs are actually about, and when certain words and phrases ring out clearly they end up having even more impact. The vocal harmonies are another thing about the band that makes them interesting and unique, at times calling back the ancient Gregorian chant style.
"Warm Foothills" is a duet of sorts that shows how experimental the band is willing to get. Joe Newman's vocals are paired with vocals by 4 other people: Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas, Sivu, and Marika Hackman. The result is an interesting song -- although it feels like the band are moving toward the stylings of Mumford & Sons.
The end of the album is a throwback to the '90s era when artists would put a bonus track on a compact disc. Listening on Spotify, "Leaving Nana" has a few minutes of silence before the "Bonus Track: Lovely Day" which is a beautiful and triumphant way for the album to end. Again, the flow is completely broken, but perhaps that's the artists' intention. They experimented, changed some things up, and this was the result.
Having put out only two full length albums, this is still a band with a bright future. The question is how they will evolve over time.
Follow Alt-J's latest music, news, and tour dates on their Zumic artist page.