This week’s column was originally going to be Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love, which was recommended to me by a friend and has subsequently changed my life (not really, but you catch my drift). However, after an excellent gig at Exeter’s own Westpoint Arena, the dulcet tones of alt-J have been drawing me back in, and so I’m writing about them instead. I remember a couple of months before An Awesome Wave came out, I was doing my usual procrastination of following links on YouTube when I first heard Tesselate. I remember thinking how clever the lyrics to this song were, and how different it sounded to what I was listening to at the time. Three years later and I still feel the same listening to this album all the way through.
If you don’t know already, alt- J are a three-piece (it used to be four, until their guitarist Gwil decided it wasn’t for him) who formed at Leeds University, comprising of singer and guitarist Joe, keyboardist/ backing vocalist/ general creator-of-sounds Gus, and drummer Thom. They are also somewhat defined by the fact that they really like triangles (alt + J on an Apple Mac makes a triangle symbol), which their fans like to hold up at their gigs, kind of like the diamonds people show to Jay Z. The band themselves labelled their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave as “accessible”, which seems both ridiculous and accurate; this record is strange, it’s unusual, and yet the mainstream embraced it with open arms.
An Awesome Wave is a bit like that box of miscellaneous items that everyone has when moving house. It’s not kitchenware, it’s not for the study, it’s just full of a mish-mosh of items that are spilling out of it. You’ve packed too much in there, and you know you have, but it’s fun to unpack and rediscover all the strange things you had hidden under your bed. Topics for the record come from a wide range of literary and cultural sources, from Hubert Selby Jr’s novel Last Exit To Brooklyn in Fitzpleasure to a mugging in Bloodflood, to the relationship of real-life photographer Gerda Taro and Robert Capa in Taro, to the quoting of Johnny Flynn’s The Wrote and the Writ in Matilda. Each of these topics is dealt with differently, from the slow, almost romantic Bloodflood to the gritty, frantic Fitzpleasure. In Taro (which, as a side-note, contains one of my favourite lyrics: “Do not spray into eyes; I have sprayed you into my eyes”), a roll of electric tape is bounced off an electric guitar to create an almost-Bhangra twang. All of these are transformed by Joe’s nasal, almost-metallic voice, which is somehow creepy and reassuringly relaxing all at once.
This is the sort of album that is made to be listened to as a whole. Not only is there an introduction which slowly draws the listener in, but there are interludes throughout which are incongruous with the songs before and after them, and yet tie the album up as one cohesive piece. Ripe And Ruin, for example (Or Interlude I depending on where you’re listening to the album) is almost like a sea shanty, which - if you read the lyrics through - seems to be about a girl with OCD. This a cappella interlude, in which the entire focus in on the voices of the band, is at odds with the busy, heavy music throughout the rest of the record, and yet it is the perfect appetizer for the thick, strong first notes of Tesselate. It also, however tenuously, links with the theme of the sea which is present throughout the album (“You’re a shark and I’m swimming” and “Tide in, tide out” being just two brief examples). It also does what the album as a whole does, and moves from the smaller, everyday interactions of people - and the girl who “wants to count her steps” - to bigger scale, wide-angle views of the world: “Like all good fruit, the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin”. And that’s just a one-minute song!
This record is a mix of genres and styles. I read somewhere that if Heston Blumenthal made a record, this is what it would sound like, and I’d have to agree. Even within each song there is a conflict between tempos and rhythms, such as in Dissolve Me (another personal favourite), where we’re taken from the upbeat, cheerful verses to a slow, longing and nostalgic chorus: “She makes the sound / The sound the sea makes to calm me down… I’m tired now” and back again. There are a lot of “oohs” and “ahas” throughout the album, which add to this notion of building us up just to bring us back down. Sometimes, the harmonies of Joe and Gus, which so often make these moments up, are jarring and almost uncomfortable, such as in hidden track Hand Made, but it kind of works.
All in all, this album is experimental, yes, and hard to define, certainly. I find it hard to explain exactly why I like this album so much. I just do. I like the lyrics, first and foremost, but I also like the way they convey these lyrics; the chopping and changing of styles, the unusual voices they use, the mix of calm songs with the heavy, dense ones. Even the Mercury Prize board agree, giving the 2012 prize to the band. I saw them the day after their win at the tiny Oxford academy, and it was one of my favourite gigs. Seeing them last week, in an Arena and with high tech lights and staging, it was really something special to appreciate how their first album is suited to larger spaces, as well as that tiny venue in Oxford. Although their second album doesn’t rank quite as highly in my esteem, I can’t wait to see where this band go next.