May 23, 2022

Alt-J ‘The Dream’ – “gorgeously laid-back psychedelia”

INFECTIOUS / BMG 11th February 2022

The Dream takes a few listens to really reveal itself – sounding initially like a switchback of changing styles. As soon as it flips that switch in the brain, The Dream becomes warmly weird, gently psychedelic and immersive. There is a darkness woven through it, popping up in the lyrics, belying the rich musical context. Choral accompaniment and nicely hanging back-beats take this into late-night listening territory, subverted by the shadows of the words.

‘Happier When You’re Gone’ is a lovely gentle ballad. Except it isn’t – “The smell of burning cattle hangs on the westerly”, sings Joe Newman. ‘Hard Drive Gold’ is the big winning beat, powering along, whilst throwing out cryptic crypto-currency references. Something like ‘Get Better’ sits in singer-songwriter territory. Lyrically it comes closest to a coherent story but not very close. Snapshots of a younger self are passed against hospital images, references to front-line health and emergency workers and death (“I pretend you’re only out of sight / in another room”). Other songs are more oblique. ‘Philadelphia’ seems like a shot towards making a ‘Barcelona’ – only it isn’t Monserrat Caballe doing a vaguely operatic one word chorus of the titular city. Strings underpin specific moments of the song yet there is a playful subversion of structure at play and lyrics that poke at the sense of murder and danger on the streets. When they open ‘Walk A Mile’ with a blues vocal, they move on by making it a downbeat bluesy ballad, emoting uncharacteristically. ‘Delta’ is a bluesy snippet and prefaces ‘Losing My Mind’, where a metaphorical drowning is underway as an unusually direct song about growing to manhood unfolds.

This is the fourth album and the 2012 debut winning a Mercury Prize wasn’t the kiss of death it can be. This is the sound of a band experimenting while celebrating still being able to record together. It is clearly alt-J but also something a bit different – something fresher than the last album, something slightly more complex on the surface, yet knotted organically and structured into a coherent album, where the tracks are grouped into musical themes. In an era where Spotify pulls albums to pieces, it is an act of willfulness to take so much care of the set as a whole and there is something lovely about that.