Late August saw the release of This Is All Yours, the sophomore release by the newest band to have been hailed a “new Radiohead” – a title both unwarranted and meaningless. Still, with their awesome wave of a debut, alt-J instantly proved themselves one of the most capable art rock bands of the decade. Simultaneously groovy and glitchy, let’s at least agree: alt-J made some creative choices within Britain’s relatively stale and amorphous experimental music climate. Through their disconcerting lyrics, delivered with heartbreaking candor in that cute Yorkshire way, shine thoughtful compositions. It’s Britpop with folkloric whimsy. It’s prog rock with EDM sensibilities.
That was two years ago. What’s happened since? Well, they lost bassist Gwil Sainsbury, a move The Guardian bewilderingly headlined, “Alt-J: what happens when a bland band sheds an anonymous member?” But that didn’t stop these troopers from releasing a slew of singles over the last four months in anticipation of a follow up to An Awesome Wave. This time, we knew what alt-J was capable of. And expectations towered dangerously high.
The first single, June’s “Hunger of the Pine,” featuring an uncanny Miley sample (“I’m a female rebel”) is “k, sounds good,” showcasing the band’s downtempo side, but it’s sadly one of the album’s high points. The following single was July’s label-pleaser, “Left Hand Free,” the one you undoubtedly mistook for a Black Keys song. Written in 20 minutes around a “joke riff,” the keyboardist actually predicted, “Someone’s going to walk on stage to it at an NRA convention.” It does suck pretty bad. Then August’s “Every Other Freckle” did us some real good with its sexy build that makes for a thoroughly groovy ride. And it may well may be the album’s best.
If This Is All Yours is anything, it’s boring. As soon as we heard it, our fears were confirmed: alt-J have nothing to say in 2014 that they didn’t already say in 2012. Maybe these songs do unfold in a Radiohead-like fashion but with hollow insides. While Radiohead makes us shudder with shame or grin like a sociopath, today’s alt-J is best suited for a cold night in a steamy hot tub when you just want thoughts to turn to melodies. It reinforces what we saw in their first album: their best songs are the ones with meaning underneath the pretty sounds. Like the debut’s “Taro” and “Fitzpleasure,” the best cuts here tell a story, despite questionable phrasing choices. So check out “Every Other Freckle.” Check out the “The Gospel of John Hurt.” But for the most part, alt-J have traded their oomph for some feelgood folktronica. It’s not bad. But it’s not great.
Given their explosive popularity, one might have expected their downfall to come in the form of mainstream songwriting, but not so. With medieval interludes and three tracks titled “Nara-something,” you would rightly suspect alt-J is getting all conceptual on us again. Ultimately though, This Is All Yours fails to cohere because it lacks emotional and intellectual meat, especially coming from a fancy-pants art rock band. Perhaps the “This” that is supposedly all ours are alt-J’s guts and balls and other vitals.
This Is All Yours