ALT-J The Dream gets 7.5/10


The Dream
Infectious Music Ltd


alt-J have carved an interesting path over the years. They burst onto the scene in 2012 as a catchy yet legitimately bizarre art-pop act that meshed rock, American and English folk, blues and electronica into a distinctive, and somehow best-selling, brew. They’ve remained musically aloof ever since, releasing records every few years prescribing to whatever inclination struck them at the time, whether it be the bluesier This Is All Yours or the more experimental RELAXER. Their latest The Dream sees a return to more listenable territory while still retaining a hint of weirdness and the lyrical wit we’ve come to expect.

The first half of The Dream sees alt-J at its heights. Bane is a foreboding opener that shifts through several motifs, opening with a menacing guitar line and the kind of twisty vocals we’ve come to expect from inimitable frontman Joe Newman. The lyrics, seemingly about a kid whose Cola addiction makes him run amok, may well be an examination of childhood trauma or they may just be taking the piss.

The Dream takes a child’s perspective on other tracks (Hard Drive Gold, Losing My Mind, Powders), or tells stories through a wistful lens. It’s an approach that allows for the balancing of dark and wry, as is the band’s forte. U&ME is an exception, the album’s key single whose musical lightness matches its subject matter of having perhaps too good of a night out. It’s a perfect alt-J single, weird yet catchy with some great lines like “Round of kimonos for my girls in the sun” (whatever that means).

The remaining four tracks round out an excellent run. Hard Drive Gold is a hilarious little blues-rock jam about a teenager’s fantasies of being a crypto millionaire. It’s one of the best tunes alt-J ever put out. Its tongue-in-cheek bounce is quickly snuffed by the following Happier When You’re Gone, a cold ballad with some very cutting lyrics about a relationship coming apart (“Benzo timeline/ cuts smiles to straight lines”).

Its sister ballad is even more effective in Get Better, an even more wrenching song that mourns a friend who has passed. Its simpler structure and acoustic guitar backing works so well that you wonder why alt-J hadn’t dug from this well sooner in their career. The Actor is more cinematic, buoyed by treated instrumentation that sounds like shifting metallic plates. It tells the story of a drug-fueled death in California, a well-worn micro-genre to which this number can proudly be added as an examplar. Chicago isn’t mind-blowing but it’s effective, eschewing rock and turning to ominous house rhythms in its latter half as true to its name.

It’s here that the album hits a slump, if only due to the strength of what came before. Philadelphia is a surreal tale of murder that’s presented in a herky-jerky, tempo-fluid song structure with occasional operatic vocal backing. Unfortunately, it’s unconvincing, fancying quantity of ideas over quality. The following one-two of Walk in My Shoes and  Delta is the album’s biggest misstep, the two tracks summing to seven and a half minutes of reverb-drenched swampy blues meditations backed by lyrics that amount to a puff of air. It’s pleasant enough listening but is a track that any band could have done.

The two final songs bring the album back on track. Losing My Mind seems tied to the same storyline as Bane. It’s light on ideas but its repeating choral refrain is one of the high points of the album. Powders is a sweet closer, a cute tale about teenage love which expresses the thrill of early romance through the smells of perfume.

It closes a fine release, alt-J’s most accomplished since their debut and their most mature to date. It may not maintain its steam all the way through, but it jams enough good ideas across its stronger parts to make lesser bands jealous. The Dream should please longtime fans while bringing in some new ones.


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