Relaxer, released in 2017, is the latest album from the polarizing indie rock band alt-J. Depending on who you ask, they’re either one of the most musically unique mainstream acts or are weird to the point of being bad. Sure, these guys can hilariously and accurately recreate alt-J’s sound while presumably stoned and eating rice cakes, but having a style unique enough to parody is a plus in my book. Following their shift towards a more sparse, ambient sound with This Is All Yours in 2014, expectations for this album were mixed. Their debut, An Awesome Wave, took the music world by storm with Joe Newman’s alien-like, barely discernible vocals cutting through rich, layered instrumentals. Their pop sensibilities return on Relaxer, making for another strong album.
Relaxer opens with the slow, gentle guitar of lead single, “3WW”. The song builds to its dramatic drop and then fades back out and features female vocals from Ellie Rowsell. Both of their previous intros are some of the best tracks on the record and “3WW” outshines them. It captures the best aspects of both the intimate and bombastic nature of their sound. “In Cold Blood” is the “Left Hand Free” of this album. It’s catchy and instantly accessible, with the most alt-J intro they’ve created so far, counting off binary. The “la la la” chants that they use as a signature of sorts are back and they sound like they’re having a lot of fun recording it. It seems much more well thought out than “Left Hand Free”, which elevates it away from being a throwaway made for the radio. The next song is an out of left field cover of “House Of The Rising Sun”. It’s impossible to recognize compared to the original, perhaps one of the most famous songs of all time, but that’s the mark of a good cover. The melody is gone and the lyrics are slightly altered. It’s an interesting experiment, but not one I’ll likely come back to often. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is the song that will turn detractors away for good and will divide even die hard fans. Something tells me the band were self-aware of that with the closing line, “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do”. Ghostly, disturbing wails open the song before it breaks into an electric guitar driving a rhythm full of drums and programmed sounds. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is alt-J at their most bizarre and although it might not be the best song, it certainly sounds unlike anything else, and that in itself makes it worth a listen.
This is a relatively short album, especially after the long winded This Is All Yours. As a result it suffers from a few forgettable tracks. “Deadcrush” falls victim to standing out as one of the few weak tracks among the more affecting ones. On the flip side, “Adeline” is absolutely a contender for the best song they’ve written. The lyrics tell an odd story of a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a girl while watching her swim, but the music is so poignant that it evokes a sense of sympathy. Strings, drums, chanting, and Joe Newman’s voice build and coalesce throughout the song into a beautiful cacophony. “Last Year” took repeated listening to grow on me but the simplicity of recounting the year prior to the narrator’s suicide among beautiful acoustic guitar and vocals from Marika Hackman turn it into a worthy follow-up to “Adeline”. It’s haunting, innocent at first listen, and is one of the few songs of theirs where the lyrics have a story among them. “Pleader” closes the album in terrific fashion. The acoustics sound like they were recorded in a cathedral and they get a massive, enveloping sound as a result. It’s an epic way to wrap up the album.
Relaxer is an album that has its ups and downs but the weaker moments get lost among the rest. It’s short enough to keep from rambling into unnecessarily long songs with too little words. Although it’s only eight tracks, it’s long enough to let the songs breathe and grow into some of the best they’ve written, such as “3WW” and “Adeline”. I don’t think Relaxer changed their formula enough to win over any detractors of the band, but fans will be beyond happy.
Pressing Details: This is the standard pressing on black vinyl released by Atlantic Records and Infectious Music. As of now there’s no variants that I’m aware of. The record comes in a gatefold sleeve with a glossy image printed on a matte background. The cover, which features a still from the video game LSD: Dream Emulator, looks very sharp. The inner sleeve features the complete lyrics and credits for Relaxer. The pocket also features additional artwork, which is always a nice touch and shows the attention to detail that went into the release. There’s no surface noise or flaws on the record at all that I noticed through multiple listens. The vinyl pressing had attention and care go into it, making it well worth picking up for fans of the album.
Relaxer is available on vinyl from Amazon here.