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Alt-J - 'The Dream' Album Review


1. Bane

2. U&ME

3. Hard Drive Gold

4. Happier When You’re Gone

5. The Actor

6. Get Better

7. Chicago

8. Philadelphia

9. Walk A Mile

10. Delta

11. Losing My Mind

12. Powders

A wise person once said “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”. To be honest, I don’t know whether Joni Mitchell is particularly wise or not, but she can write a tune- so I guess that will do. I suppose the opposite of not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone, is not knowing that you were missing something in your life before it arrives. I remember having great discussions with my dad and stepmum about why they should buy a microwave; “waste of money”, “wouldn’t use it” were typical responses to my pleas for them to drag their kitchen into the modern world. Eventually they gave in and got one. I swear to God, ten years later it was pretty much the only way they cooked. On a similar theme, I don’t think anybody knew how much they needed Biscoff spread, until they first tried it, and we all know how that ended up (I’m not sponsored by Biscoff spread, by the way, but am much very open to offers). Anyway.. Joni Mitchell, microwaves, Biscoff… Oh yes, not knowing you were missing something from your life until you find it, and that’s where today’s protagonists, Alt-J enter the story.

Along with most people who hold more than a passing interest in music, I’ve been aware of Alt-J for nearly ten years, but I’ve never chosen to get to know them much beyond the singles- despite their debut album winning at the Mercuries in 2012. I’ve liked their particular brand of distorted, Americana/Blues/Psychedelia/Ambient Rock well enough, but never enough to tempt me into a deeper exploration- I had a couple of forays in, but never developing our relationship further than catching eyes across a crowded room. This album has skipped the catching eyes across a crowded dancefloor stage, we’re past the small talk, heavy petting is a mere memory, the taxi ride home seems a long time ago, we’re upstairs and… I’ll stop now in case my mum’s reading this, but you get the picture. Such prudishness has never been a problem for Alt-J, they’re famous for their beyond euphemistic lyrics, so I was expecting lots of filth but on that front, I was on the whole disappointed. That’s where my disappointment ended.

The album opens with ‘Bane’, which initially and immediately transports us to the arid desert landscape of a Spaghetti Western- it’s vast and echoey, it’s cinematic, it’s epic, it’s fucking amazing. And then the landscape melts and we slip into distorted dreamscapes of electronic ambience, accompanied by minimalist guitar which gradually builds and eventually ends with some proper Zadok the Priest choir shit going down. I do realise that this sounds weird, and that’s because it is- but it’s an amazing opening; it demands your full attention, and you have no choice but to give it. Where ‘Bane’ is an all-encompassing soundscape, ‘U&Me’ is a much more straight forward Pop song with a catchy chorus and everything, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the first single. 'Hard Drive Gold' is the second release from the album- it has a driving beat and a vocal that will have you moving- never before has a song about crypto-currency sounded so damn sexy, less hard drive than wank bank. The two singles released in 2022- ‘Get Better’ and ‘The Actor’ are killer as well; as much as I love the theme of celebrity excess in the latter song, the former continues to blow me away every time I hear it. This is a pared back Alt J, it’s closer to Fleet Foxes than I’d imagined, but it’s incredible- beautifully unembellished, honest and moving; at one point I genuinely found myself catching my breath when lead singer, Joe Newman expressed more in just an inhalation than could be expressed by a song’s worth of lyrics. I know that sounds wanky, but it’s fucking stunning.

‘Walk A Mile’ opens with a barbershop quartet (or is it a trio?) which I suppose is a bit weird, but by this point I am here for it- I am sold, and I’m not sold a pup as we drift into more ambient territories with Fleetwood Mac-esque guitars and woodwind. The close harmonies are continued on the acapella gospel style of Delta- presumably a nod to the band’s actual name, Δ (the short cut for which used to be Alt + J). Tempting as it is to write about each and every song on this record, I’m conscious that it might be a little tedious to read. Make no mistake though, this album is all killer. I don’t want to tell you how to listen to ‘The Dream’, it will be a fully immersive experience if you’ll let it- so far I have found that the best way to listen to it is in a darkened room with headphones, or driving in the dark. I’ve now delved into the band’s back catalogue, and am convinced that this is their best offering yet and well worth the five year wait. It deserves to be savoured, yet I can’t help but gulp its delicious rich, caramelly biscuit flavour down by the spoonful. Alt-J are the Biscoff spread you never knew you needed, but now you’ve found it, life can never be the same.

Review - Jm Stokes


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