NOT QUITE THERE
It’s been over two years, and we’re still listening to An Awesome Wave. Maybe because just like its namesake, an album like it only comes along once in a rare while – being totally unexpected when it does. We weren’t too sure if the British trio would be able to recapture the same magic that they did initially with their debut offering, especially with the singles that the band churned out prior to the release of sophomore This is All Yours. Lead single ‘Hunger of the Pine’ for one, made us wary. It sounded like alt-J, but perhaps a tad more placid and radio-friendly. We still couldn’t tell if we were in for a dour rehash of the same winning formula with the rest of the album, though.
As it turned out, our predictions didn’t ring true. Their second single, ‘Left Hand Free’, threw us in for a loop. Sure, the Guardian published a piece (since refuted by the band) about how it was only written to appease their label representatives in the States, and we’d much rather believe the paper because it does sound like it was written in twenty minutes just for kicks. It was the meticulous technicalities and polished embellishments that drew us in to alt-J – and them trying to sound like a parody of Beck and the Black Keys combined (now there’s an idea) was quite a turn off for us. It’s not like it was a bad song – but if it weren’t alt-J doing it, it’d have gotten a lot less attention than what it has garnered so far. Their half-assed performance of the track on Letterman a couple of weeks before the release of the full-length, complete with mistimed drums and unenthusiastic vocal work pulled our expectations lower than we ever thought alt-J would bring us.
‘Every Other Freckle’ was the third and final single before the release of the album, and comes in right before ‘Left Hand Free’ on the tracklisting – this was honestly the only track that gave us hope that all was not lost. Their signature intertwining vocals layered with filthy running bass and signature percussions (still cymbal-less) from Thom Green are finally let loose on this one. However, there’s a little more exploration on this one too than anything we heard in their previous release, a bit more wankery just because – and it feels a little too cluttered as a result of this. And that is true throughout the entire album, not just this particular track. It seemed like the band was missing a focal point, or direction in the production of this album. There are moments of pure genius in this collection that remind us that alt-J is still the band that we fell in love with, but the spaces in between them could have been utilised better, or not at all – silence seems like something else that the band has forgotten how to use.
Anyway, back to the album. After listening to ‘Intro’, which was a little too draggy for our taste, we’re treated to something a little more pleasing to the ears with another introduction of sorts – this time to another song. ‘Arrival In Nara’ takes Joe’s and Gus’s stellar harmonious vocals and lays them over a simple, but effective melodious line to herald in the first standalone track of the album, ‘Nara’, where we finally start to see some engaging use of alt-J’s signature charm; this was something that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on An Awesome Wave. It’s been almost ten minutes in, and we’ve finally heard something that we actually seem to like, musically at least. The problem with this though, an issue that seemed to recur throughout the album, was the lack of catchy, if eccentric, hooks that populated their debut. The three song cycle is concluded later on in the album (it actually finishes the record off if bonus track ‘Lovely Day’ isn’t included) with ‘Leaving Nara’.
‘Garden of England’ is a one-minute-long placeholder that serves as a waste of time, sandwiched horribly between the ‘Left Hand Free’ and the almost unmemorable ‘Choice Kingdom’. Thankfully, things start to get much better in the latter half of the album. ‘Warm Foothills’ sounds like what we’d imagine Mumford and Sons would probably play if they decided to get with the times – and boy, does it work. It’s sweet, it’s dynamic, and it’s completely unexpected. The upward trajectory continues with ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’, it treads groovily. It’s no ‘Tessellate’ if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s got a rugged charm of its own. ‘Pusher’ then showcases John Newman’s slightly oddball falsetto over baritone strings; it’s utterly breathtaking. If you can get past the first verse, you’ve got Alt-J at its dulcet, acoustic best. ‘Bloodflood, Pt. II’ grows on you, as it fondly recalls its prequel on the previous album.
We aren’t going to say that we’re happy. But while not much really stood out as extraordinary, it didn’t particularly stink either. There’s still some beauty with this album, especially if it’s heard all the way through from the top to the bottom. And like we said, it only gets better towards the end. It helps that the album flows beautifully – perhaps it’s better off enjoyed that way, as a movement, not through individual tracks. But then again, that is what an album is supposed to be, eh? We’ve got our fingers crossed for the next one.
LISTEN TO: ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: Vance Joy
2. Arrival in Nara
4. Every Other Freckle
5. Left Hand Free
6. Garden Of England
7. Choice Kingdom
8. Hunger Of The Pine
9. Warm Foothills
10. The Gospel Of John Hurt
12. Bloodflood Pt. II
13. Leaving Nara
14. Lovely Day