The contradiction of all second records but especially this one: Be what people expect when people want something unexpected.
Alt-J both do and don't care what the listening public thinks on blithely-titled second album, This Is All Yours. With the success of first record, An Awesome Wave -- a weird and impressive collection of trippy, modern-baroque pop songs -- Alt-J finds itself in the unique and liminal confines of a band now expected to do certain things. Worse, they are expected to do certain unexpected things -- the pleasantness of An Awesome Wave lying, at least partially, in its almost weirdness. The contradiction of all second records but especially this one: Be what people expect when people want something unexpected.
This Is All Yours opens with an invocation, "Intro", and a sense that freedom from the expected lies in the very subversion of it and a nearly myopic focus on technical craft. Vocalists Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman weave between each other in an alternating layers of "la's". Their voices turn into instruments, the singers becoming mere sound, just another part of the synthesizer array. Close your eyes and you can play their voices, needing only the right keys to press. "Intro" is both intricate and empty. A search for Alt-J at the outset finds the band's impressive arrangement architecture present, the obvious work of the artist, even if the artists themselves are camouflaged if not absent in a wash of instrumentation. Though An Awesome Wave opened with an "Intro" of its own, an invocation on "(Interlude 1)", Unger-Hamilton and Newman, with their now departed colleague Gwil Sainsbury, were the present gardeners of a lush and fecund garden. On This Is All Yours, the jungle grows in the night accountable to its own ecology.
Alt-J's desire to frustrate and challenge their listeners emerges on the second track, the beautiful and languid "Arrival In Nara". The song refers to the Japanese city of the same name and its public park downtown where deer roam freely. The visual metaphor isn't hard to parse: the structure of the urban meets the unaccountable and angular wilderness, and finally, that these two might not be as divergent as we have been lead to believe. Still, it represents a frustrating second track, not only for those neophyte listeners who will buy the record on the radio play of outlier single, "Left Hand Free". After "Intro" and "Arrival In Nara", the record has run nearly nine minutes without beginning in earnest. The restraint represents the joke and the methodology, as Newman told NPR: "We try to tantalize listeners, giving them the right amount of something, just before they start craving it. You sort of want to drive people crazy, but not overuse the idea." By the end of "Arrival In Nara" even Alt-J fans may well cop to being frustrated. The record begins unofficially on track three, "Nara" as Newman finally unleashes an archetypal Alt-J chorus, "I've discovered a man like no other man." By the time the chimes peel at the 2:57 mark in the rarefied air of the upper sanctuary, the church of restraint and release the band is suitably famous for building begins to come into view.
"Every Other Freckle", the closest approximation to "Breezeblocks" for those fans still chasing the satisfactions of 2012, pursues further these notions of satiation and hunger. The gross -- "I want to turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp package" -- mixes with the contradictory, "Devour me, if you really think you can stomach me." The eponymous line, Newman repeating "I want every other freckle" represents exactly the bizarre pop that Alt-J makes with such seeming ease. This is the unexpected expected, the same type of fullness and trouble contained in the final choruses of "Breezeblocks", a song ostensibly about a murder: "I'd eat you whole, please don't go." The absence of these contradictory impulses, the desire to satisfy and deny, makes single "Left Hand Free" so gaudy and obvious. It may well be the song that carries Alt-J to alternative radio and beyond, but its structure and sub-three-minute running time suggest an immediacy that appears nowhere else in the band's catalogue. Using the visual metaphors of "Every Other Freckle", it is digestible and undesirable at once.
The band's best and weirdest moments arrive in the second half of This Is All Yours on successive tracks "Hunger of the Pine", "Warm Foothills", and "Gospel of John Hurt". Unger-Hamilton elected to sample Miley Cirus on "Hunger of the Pine", Cyrus' disembodied voice sailing out on the lyric, "I'm a female rebel." Pretty and disjointed, the dark elegy of "Hunger of the Pine" swells but never explodes, though its menacing low-end consistently suggests it might. Newman and guest vocalist Marika Hackman interplay on "Warm Foothills", a beautiful and plaintive aside that also features vocals from Conor Oberst, Sivu and Lianne La Havas. The band does upper middle class make-out music better than almost anyone else. "The Gospel of John Hurt", a song nominally about the birth scene from the movie Alien, winks at the mixture of creation and death on its refrain, "Oh, coming out of the woodwork". Making a record must be a little like this too, an alien birthed from your chest, a creation that destroys the very image of its creator. As far as lyrical imagery, "The Gospel of John Hurt" represents a far darker image of creation than the deer roaming the center of Nara. Art doesn't just roam free, it bursts from your chest; art kills.
A few weeks ago the band took to the stage at Le Poisson Rouge, a smallish venue in the West Village of New York, to perform a live set that would be broadcast by NPR's "First Listen" series. More than the excitement of playing their first shows since January, the feeling in the room was explicitly performative -- a band being recorded, and audience and band both knew it. We watched each other for clues. The room warmed to the new material, and the band loosened in the memory of pleasing an adoring crowd in-person and over the unaccountable wastes of the digital airwaves. Alt-J closed the main set with "Gospel of John Hurt", a song all but a few in attendance had never heard. The audience undulated through the song's final swelling conclusion. It was conterminously unknown and desired, the mixture of the expected and the unexpected that grows somewhere at the middle of all our private cities.