“It’s a happy, happy, happy, happy, fun day, day.”
If you have a particular attachment to “The House of the Rising Sun” as the Animals, or Dolly Parton, or even Five Finger Death Punch did it (or any of the many other artists who have taken a crack at it, for that matter), the line above is going to represent something like blasphemy. Even if you don’t have an attachment to a previous version of the song, that line is a jarring one. Inserted untethered to the strict ABCB rhyme scheme of the rest of the song, it’s a passing thought, a wry statement drenched in sarcasm from the mouth of a child. Its overt sneer is a strange juxtaposition with the poetry of the rest of the lyrics — the latter half of which, in the version on alt-J’s third album Relaxer, were written by vocalist Joe Newman — that stay a step removed from the pain inflicted by the father in the song. It is a childish line, and intentionally so.
Whether you take to it is a good indication of how you’ll take to the rest of the album. There’s a willful awkwardness in the art of alt-J, and they flaunt that awkwardness at every opportunity throughout Relaxer, whether through over-earnest experimentation, or overt sexuality where it doesn’t seem to belong, or swaggering nerdiness, or the aforementioned childishness. It’s largely an acquired taste, albeit one that alt-J isn’t afraid to commit to.
Current alternative radio favorite “In Cold Blood”, for example, gets an awful lot of mileage out of a binary sequence: “zero one one one zero zero one one,” sings Newman, which could mean 115, or a lowercase “s”, or could just be a collection of words that nicely fit the rhythm and allowed Newman to be willfully obtuse. It’s a song about a murder at a pool party, with a down-and-dirty groove complete with horn section. It is also by far the catchiest thing on Relaxer, somehow, which means that alt-J shows from here on out are liable to have huge collections of people shouting a random binary bytecode, which is delightful.
In a similar vein to “In Cold Blood” is the hyper-confrontational “Hit Me Like That Snare”, in which Newman dons a sneer that puts him smack in the middle of Dan Bejar and early ’80s Gordon Gano. It’s hard to tell whether its counter-cultural leanings are sincere, as it never quite commits to its S&M-as-nonconformist-ethos themes, and its final-minute mantra of “Fuck you, I’ll do what I wanna do” is more hilariously silly than dangerous. It’s impossible to take the song entirely seriously, and maybe that’s the intent, but four minutes of cringing doesn’t seem like it should be the desired effect.
Oddly, the real gold on Relaxer happens when alt-J reins in the gimmickry a bit and starts writing folk songs. The one-two punch of “Adeline” and “Last Year” toward the end of the album — a full 12 minutes of an album that’s barely 38 — is utterly exquisite. “Adeline” manages to incorporate a piece of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack and an old folk song, “The Auld Triangle”, into this new folk song. It’s an extremely still, yet curiously intense and thoughtfully-executed piece, without verses and refrains so much as twists and turns. “Last Year” happens in two parts, a suicide and its aftermath. While the former is wrenching in its beauty, it’s the latter that really finds the heart; Marika Hackman sings from the first vocalist’s funeral an ode to the river that drowned him. It’s a song that recalls the quietest, most intimate moments from someone like, say, Damien Rice or (reaching back a little further) Paul Simon.
That these two tracks take up nearly a third of the album’s running time, that they are two of its tracks, is one of many elements that keep the listener entirely off-balance when listening to Relaxer. The album is bookended with vaguely medieval melodies. There are two instances of counting to ten in Japanese. There’s a song that could have been a Depeche Mode song if Joe Newman wasn’t singing it (“Deadcrush”).
It all adds up to…. well, I have no idea. It’s not boring. Relaxer is eight songs that exist as their own little worlds, tenuously connected to one another through little melodic motifs and overlapping lyrics. It is proudly, defiantly, alt-J, with barely a wink to a potential mainstream audience. It is hit and miss in both the best and worst senses of that phrase, willing to allow the laughably ugly to exist alongside the sublimely beautiful. It might be better as a whole if we could make sense of it at a macro level, but maybe we should stop expecting that of alt-J. Really, there is no better test than whether you can stomach “It’s a happy, happy, happy, happy, fun day, day” as a lyric in “The House of the Rising Sun”. If you can, well, there’s a good chance this is the album for you.