Sophomore albums can be a bit tricky for many bands. This is especially true if the band’s first album was a major hit. Some bands stick to the formula that made them famous in the first place. (I’m looking at you Vampire Weekend.) Other bands keep that popular sound while simultaneously tweaking it and building on it to produce another excellent album. (Oh hey Foster the People.) Unfortunately, a third category of band thinks they need to reinvent the wheel. This desire to change causes them to stray far from the sound that made them great in the first place, thereby producing a pile of smelly shit as their second album. (Shame on you, Young the Giant.) Most bands fit into one of these three categories.
And then there’s alt-J.
When it comes to alt-J, the only constant is change. Take the band’s name, for instance. “alt-J” is the keystroke shortcut on certain iMac models for the symbol “Δ”. If you think back to your seventh grade science class, you’ll remember that this symbol—the Greek letter delta—is used to represent change. What better name for a band whose sound changes drastically even within the confines of a single song? With the recent release of their second album This Is All Yours, alt-J has lived up to its name yet again.
The first track on the new album is a perfect example of the constant shape-shifting that takes place in every alt-J song. “Intro” begins with a series of la-la-la’s that sound like something from an episode of Glee. This continues for two solid minutes, at which point lead singer Joe Newman begins making a series of growling noises. The song’s lone verse, whose lyrics are inspired by a Wu-Tang Clan song, makes its appearance shortly thereafter. New instruments (and weird noises) are then layered and layered as the song builds to a powerful crescendo. By the end of the song, you’ve forgotten where it was that you came from.
“Intro” is just one example of the ever-changing sound on This Is All Yours. The album includes a haunting trio of songs named after an obscure Japanese city (Nara) and serving as a pro-gay rights statement. Then there’s the old school blues rock of “Left Hand Free”, which sounds like it could be a track on the Black Key’s next album. (I mean that as a compliment.) “Warm Foothills” samples borrowed vocals from four different artists (including Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes), meshing them together to make a beautifully cohesive tune. There’s the delightfully weird sexual innuendo of “Every Other Freckle”, which features Eastern instruments, a shout-out to Lou Reed, and Newman’s Snidely Whiplash-like voice singing these three lyrics, among others:
“I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag.”
“Gonna paw, paw at you like a cat paws at my woolen jumper.”
“I’m gonna roll around you like a cat rolls around saw-dusted patios.”
Still not strange enough for you? Try one of the album’s singles, “Hunger of the Pine”. It begins with a repetitive electronic drone behind Newman’s lyrics. Then the strings come in. Then the guitar. Then the wind instruments. And then… wait, is that… Miley Cyrus?! Damn right it is! Out of nowhere, you get a sample of Miley shouting the line “I’m a female rebel!” from her song “4×4”. Then the horns are added. Then the drums. Then the instruments slowly begin to drop out one-by-one as the song finishes with a few lyrics in French.
Remember that guy from the movie Alien who has a tiny space worm explode out of his chest? There’s even a song about him.
On This Is All Yours, the sound seems like it can never sit still. The lyrics jump from one place to another, full of obscure imagery and often-indecipherable metaphors. This album may leave you disoriented and lost, and that seems to be exactly what the band wants. Somehow, though, alt-J’s musical ADHD lends itself yet again to another great listening experience.
Winston Churchill (and recently, everyone’s favorite TV politician Frank Underwood) said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” alt-J may not have achieved perfection with This Is All Yours, but they sure as hell tried.