The second album is perhaps the greatest indicator of an artist’s staying power. Those that die lean on complacency, fall prone to self-indulgence or both. Those that persist find a way of marrying progress with expectation. alt-J have fortunately not fallen into complacency. The departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury early this year was met with fear by the band’s dearest fans, his role reportedly being one of cohesion, to provide a guiding hand from rough demo to polished song. Yet it is precisely because of his leaving that the remaining band members were able to, in their own words, cement their own positions. The result is an album not weighed down by the success of their debut, and the resulting expectation.
At first glance the album can lapse in to navel-gazing self-indulgence, the twee recorder interlude “Garden of England” being the most apparent example. This view is perhaps premature when understood in the context of the preceding “Left Hand Free”, a song written to provide a “big single” for the American label. Together these songs demonstrate a wonderful satirical humour as if the band acknowledges this external pressure with a cheeky wink and a return to the “Garden of England” from the American Prairie. That said, their inclusion gives a disjointed feel; the album as a whole would benefit from their removal.
The immediacy of their debut, encapsulated in the opening chords of “Tessellate”, has gone. The album is overly slow to start, the lumping “Intro” is unnecessary and one wishes that the “Arrival in Nara” didn’t take so long. The upshot is a more brooding and introspective sound, the finger-picked guitar riffs that drove their debut making way for a wider gamut of live and synthesised instrumentation. Their love of Clams Casino’s instrumental works shines through in the drum work and on the Miley Cyrus sampling “Hunger of the Pine”, and “Every Other Freckle” sounds like a more cerebral reimagining of punk poet legend John Cooper Clarke’s “I Wanna Be Yours”.
Some painted alt-J as the poster boys of a bland and overused phrase “the new Radiohead”, being thrown at them with praise and derision by supporters and detractors respectively. While neither the detractors nor those allergic to their vocal sound will be converted, they have still crafted a compelling album; one that makes up for the loss of immediacy and pop sensibility with a lushness of sound that demands and rewards repeat listening.