This Is All Yours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
If you want to see a band that isn’t enjoying themselves, look up alt-J’s September 4th appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman on YouTube. Performing “Left Hand Free,” the second single off their sophomore release, This is All Yours, the Leeds group looks utterly disinterested, turning in a uncharacteristically tepid performance of the most atypically extroverted song they’ve ever written. Reportedly written as a half-serious goof after their label, Atlantic-subsidiary Canvasback, balked at the album’s lack of an obvious radio single, the garage-blues sing-along crackles with an uninhibited joyfulness on the record. But playing it on TV, they look like they’re staging a protest, sleepwalking through a low-energy rendition as if rolling their eyes at some record exec’s mandate to play the designated single. This is not a band cut out for rock star poses.
To that end, the members of alt-J have gained a reputation (and received some amount of criticism) in the British press for being so normal as to be boring, four nerdy art school kids who look like they should be hanging out at the local coffee shop. But as musicians they remain stubbornly idiosyncratic. Following up their unlikely Mercury Prize-winning 2012 debut, the million-selling An Awesome Wave, they could have been forgiven had they decided to capitalize on the moment and made a safe record to maximize their commercial returns. Instead, they have done the opposite. This is All Yours is a bolder, stranger, and altogether more engrossing album. But it’s not an album that will make a record exec’s job any easier.
Opening with the oscillating wordless vocals of the imaginably titled “Intro,” they set a monkish mood from the start, allowing the album to unspool through autumnal interludes and extended codas. As before, they favor dark, ethereal textures – reverb-heavy guitars, unprocessed pianos, mumbling bass lines – and their arrangements continue to prioritize space and atmosphere over tidy hooks. But where An Awesome Wave could feel like a collection of more or less unrelated songs, This is All Yours sounds much more self-consciously assembled as an album. And it’s a better album as a result.
Impeccably sequenced, these songs can’t be easily pulled out of context and retain the same power. In fact, the folkish “Arrival in Nara” so seamlessly transitions to the hymn-like (and thematically-linked) “Nara” that it’s hard to find where one starts and the other finishes. That hermetic mood shifts dramatically in “Every Other Freckle,” one of the album’s numerous pivot points, its lustily leering come-ons punctuated by tribal shouts and an out-of-leftfield medieval flute breakdown. The textural shift is even more pronounced with the aforementioned “Left Hand Free,” the band’s note-perfect take on American riff-rock that cuts against the meticulous spirit of the rest of the release. As a result, it’s the album’s most obvious outlier, the one moment where their sober façade cracks a grin.
Even more than their debut, alt-J’s sound is the collision of contradictory forces on This is All Yours. Vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman remains the band’s central character, an oddly entrancing frontman whose soft tenor is both untrained and intricate, perfectly complementing keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s choir boy backing vocals. Unger-Hamilton, himself, appears to have stepped up to play a bigger role in the arranging of these songs, his classical training and use of harmonic counterpoints adding a level of sophistication to the album’s careful vocal and textural layering. The unexpected star of the show is Thom Green, the everywhere-at-once drummer who provides the connecting thread between the album’s disparate pieces, his understated yet forceful rhythms tracing each song through its maze of stylistic side-roads. Having taught himself the art of laptop production, Green is also responsible for the album’s increased use of samples and drum loops, adding subtle electronic smudges to the swirling textural palette.
The most striking, as well as the most audacious, example of this new acoustic/electronic hybrid is first single “Hunger of the Pine,” a delicately throbbing ballad laced with some fairly obtrusive Miley Cyrus samples. On its face, it’s not a decision that seems to make that much sense, and hearing Cyrus bleat “I’m a female rebel!” is particularly jarring when coupled with Newman’s softly pensive vocals. Even so, the sample is such an expectation-defying moment that it ends up making everything that surrounds it in the arrangement stand out that much more clearly. Like so many choices on this album, it seems utterly baffling until you hear it in context. That, more than anything, is alt-J’s peculiar genius, and All This is Yours provides no shortage of such moments.
Other experiments, such as having a cast of vocalists (including Lianne La Havas and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst) sing individual words or phrases on “Warm Foothills,” don’t work quite so well, but most of the most outré risks do pay off eventually. The second half of the album gets increasingly weird and impressionistic, drifting through the chest-bursting Alien references of “The Gospel of John Hurt” and the skittering beats and French horn lines of “Bloodflood Pt. II,” each song threatening to break loose in a catharsis that doesn’t arrive until the album-closing chants of “Leaving Nara.” There are no other bands making albums quite like this.
For a band whose early comparisons to Radiohead did them no real favors, it seems appropriate that alt-J has managed to escape the fate of many of Radiohead’s most obvious acolytes by ignoring Radiohead’s sound and instead copying their willingness to follow their strangest ideas to their illogical conclusions. In the process, they’ve created the rare sort of album that manages to be both familiar and disorienting at the same time, an expansively cinematic experience that remains unpretentiously grounded. They might never be the type of guys whose innate charisma will light up any room they walk into, but alt-J has few peers when it comes to the art of album construction.