Music

Why criticism of alt-J’s latest album is unfair

Alt-J’s sophomore effort “This Is All Yours” has been brutally criticized as a tuneless, unimaginative record of unearthly sounds, which is surprising for a band that has been dubbed “the next Radiohead.” Reviews say the lyrics mean nothing, the music isn’t quite there and none of it really makes sense. I say, take another listen.

Alt-J's newest album is more than critics give it credit for. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Alt-J’s newest album is more than critics give it credit for. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

It might be frustrating that the album just barely escapes the electronica tag, but the British alt-rockers’ sound is revolutionary in Internet-era music. With breathy vocals, otherworldly chants and entrancing acoustics, “This Is All Yours” simply works. It’s not just mindless noise, but rather, every component of the album has been treated with the utmost precision.

It was arguably a risky move to include a sample from twerk queen Miley Cyrus’s “4×4” on lead single “Hunger of the Pine,” but it’s no question that her voice perfectly suits the strident lyric: “I’m a female rebel.” From there, the song ambles into French, with lead vocalist Joe Newman quoting poet Alfred de Musset.

Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen decided that Cyrus’ singing “grinds awkwardly” against Newman’s voice and complains that the lyric “has nothing at all to do with anything Newman says on the rest of the song.” But it’s not about perfect cohesiveness of lexicon — the lyrics fit the song because the track itself is powerful. Give it a listen — with lyrics like, “Your heart wears knight armour” and “I’ll hum the song the soldiers sing / As they march outside our window,” you’ll feel it.

Nearly every other lyric on the album has been analyzed with a fine tooth comb and deemed pointless. On “Every Other Freckle,” a track complete with torrid guitar rock, Newman sings, “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” and “I’m gonna bed you like a cat beds into a beanbag.” Use your imagination, people. If his words don’t tell you he’s serenading about sex, his lusty voice should do the trick.

In an article with Stereogum, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton outlined the process of writing the song cycle “Arrival in Nara,” “Nara” and “Leaving Nara.”

“Nara is a place in Japan where it’s full of deer, and the deer can sort of run around wherever they want throughout the city,” Unger-Hamilton said. “The deer kind of have right of way everywhere. And the idea of the song, ‘Nara,’ is about wanting to live your life freely as you want because you’re not hurting anybody.”

Unger-Hamilton’s sentiment is so beautiful it gives me chills. Together, the three songs have a clear theme: love. “I’ve found a love to love like no other can,” Newman sings on “Nara.” “I’ll bury my hands deep / into the mane of my lover,” he later croons on “Leaving Nara.”

The songs were originally set to be called “Nara Intro,” “Nara” and “Nara Reprise.” However, seeing that Nara is a place, alt-J opted to use the words “Arrival” and “Leaving.” The level of thought that went into just these three songs is outstanding.

“This Is All Yours” is relentless in its grab for attention, and for good reason. The beautifully innovative piece has been severely underestimated. Alt-J succeeds in adding quirky elements to its distinct sound to make for a gorgeous new genre that is simultaneously ominously dark and blissfully transcendent.

*This story was originally published in The Signal.

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