Photography by Gabriela Plump
It’s not easy to describe Alt-J’s sound, and yet something about them has always felt familiar. 2012’s An Awesome Wave worked on many different levels: somewhat indecipherable lyrics that were smart and haunting upon second listen; a balanced production of textured ambiance, steady rhythms, and soaring melodies; otherworldly vocals that were also heartbreakingly human; and a moody atmosphere that was at once calming and unsettling. Several strong, standout singles fit together, if not in the precise uniformity of a tessellation, then at least as sensibly as a jigsaw puzzle.
Then came September’s This Is All Yours, the reason for their current tour, on which New York was the nineteenth stop. They appeared through a screen of smoke onstage to a pulsing single note and an elaborate lightshow. They opened with “Hunger of the Pine”, the album’s first single, which features a Miley Cyrus sample, French chanting, horns, and a thick buzz. Hard to describe, sure, but not familiar at all.
The show really began with the second song of the night, the irresistible “Fitzpleasure”. The crowd grew lively, rose from their seats, and started to dance. Joe Newman did not feign surprise when fans sang along to Wave’s most recognizable songs, from “Fitzpleasure” to the entrancing, rhythmic “Tessellate” to the melodic, yearning “Matilda”. During “Something Good”, he simply said, “You guys know the words.”
The albums have lyrical continuity: you hear the same confrontational “toe to toe” moments between characters, the seas that wash over them, and the sharks that lay in wait beneath. “C-o-double m-o-n,” heard in “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood”, references Newman’s fearful fantasies of gang violence in the town common. In “Bloodflood pt. II”, Newman wonders where the gang members are now. They combined the two “Bloodfloods” together into a jam that went on a bit long. Jamming doesn’t really suit these guys. Trained in fine arts and appreciative of triangles, they don’t seem the types to be okay with a misplaced keystroke or faulty design.
In a 2012 interview, Newman said he doesn’t like people trying to figure out what Alt-J’s music sounds like. And yet, in the newer songs, Alt-J sounds like everyone but themselves. “Warm Foothills” sounds like the Lumineers. “Left Hand Free” sounds like the Black Keys (tone) Light. In order to escape labels of genre and style, and perhaps to escape a creative rut, they departed from the delightful, yet determined surprises of Wave to less thoughtful experiments in pop. In person, these experiments were a bit dull.
The show’s peak was “Tessellate”. Fans threw up triangle hand signs and heaved forward with their shoulders. New bassist Cameron Knight added the necessary depth to Gus Unger-Hamilton’s opaque synth. “Let’s tessellate,” a thinly veiled metaphor, worked perfectly with the sensual, asymmetric rhythm, as it does in the recorded version. But live, it was subtly electrifying. It didn’t make you want to dance so much as it made you want to feel yourself move, especially with another person.
Another highlight was “Dissolve Me”. At its opening, Newman and Unger-Hamilton teased out enunciated variations on their vocal and instrumental harmonies. It was a necessary moment of dreaminess after time spent absorbing the beat from the ground up.
It was clear the entire evening that the young band have gotten used to having to act like old pros. Perhaps they were tired or needed reassurance that they are capable of producing music that is almost universally praised, such as their first album. They thrived most when the crowd was appeased, which said something about the general discomfort surrounding the new material. Even after the finale, “Breezeblocks”, I left the venue with a slightly confused palate.
Yet, when it comes to music that’s meant to be unsettling, it’s better to err on the side of restlessness than to get too comfortable too early. And when they harness that restlessness, it all fits.
Hunger of the Pine
Left Hand Free
Bloodflood Pt. 2
(Ripe & Ruin)
Every Other Freckle
The Gospel of John Hurt