By Kathryn Varn
alt-J – This Is All Yours
Released: Sept. 22, 2014 via Infectious Records
I went into This Is All Yours with a clear understanding of what I liked about alt-J. The band’s music is refreshing. They combine the best components of electronic and acoustic, high-energy and chill, catchy enough to get you hooked and weird enough to keep you coming back for more. I came out of This Is All Yours much more confused. They disturbed the complex-yet-relatable balance they established in “An Awesome Wave” and landed on opposite extremes.
There were a lot of things I loved, like “Every Other Freckle” which was quintessential alt-J — catchy breakdowns, weird noises, sexy buildup and sexier lyrics (“I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.”) They took the most compelling parts of “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure” and channeled them into one upbeat jam.
And then, in “Warm Foothills,” I was reminded of the band’s pure musical talent. Yeah, they’re good at putting all these crazy sounds together to make something new and different, but strip that all down and they still got it. The back-and-forth vocals between Marika Hackman and lead singer Joe Newman are stunning (Connor Oberst is apparently in there too, but he’s hard to hear). The song forces you to stop and enjoy it in the way that art is supposed to.
It was a stark contrast to the preceding track, “Hunger of the Pine,” which is borderline creepy with its French chanting and Miley Cyrus cameo, sampled from her song “4×4.” But it pushes me to the edge of my musical comfort zone in the way that alt-J is so good at.
The song was originally the album’s single until their record label decided it wasn’t single-y enough, and out popped “Left Hand Free.” I enjoyed jamming to the the anthem-like track until I read an interview with the band in the The Guardian where Newman said he could “imagine it appealing to American truckers with Good Riddance To Bin Laden stickers!” I still enjoy jamming to the song, but I can’t help feeling gullible when I do, like I’m buying into The Man’s marketing strategy to appeal to the plebeian masses.
That pretentious attitude seeps into some of the tracks, which is where I run into issues with the album.
The Nara trio of songs (“Arrival in Nara,” “Nara” and “Leaving Nara”) actually has a Reddit thread devoted to working out the meaning. The widely accepted interpretation seems to be that the lyrics tell the story of a gay man who wants to get married and the title refers to a Japanese city named Nara that has a park downtown where deer roam free. So there’s this whole dichotomy between the freedom of the deer and the repression of homosexuals in today’s world. But to get to that conclusion, you have to go almost line-by-line and decipher each and every unrelated cultural reference. Repurposing can be a beautiful thing (“Taro,” for example), but in this case it’s so contrived it hurts.
Aside from the lyrics, the songs (unlike “Taro”) are forgettable. I don’t want to go back and decipher the complex meanings because I don’t want to go back and listen to the tracks, especially “Arrival in Nara” and “Nara,” which start off the album in the most agonizing way.
And those follow the already long-winded “Intro,” which starts off promising with some chill vocal interplay but trips over and over and over itself until you’re wondering if the song may have changed without you realizing it.
But, in that way, “Intro” serves as an overture for the whole album. Was it intentional? I’m not sure. Maybe alt-J isn’t even sure. And that’s ok. They’re a young band that was propelled into the spotlight by the smashing success of their first album. They’re learning to master their sound, and as long as they keep striving, I’ll keep listening.