Alt-J 2022 by Rosie Matheson
Photo: Rosie Matheson / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Alt-J Return With Paternal Earnestness on ‘The Dream’

Alt-J may have tempered their eccentricities on The Dream but there’s still plenty of death and genre-bending to satisfy veteran votaries.

The Dream
Infectious / Canvasback
11 February 2022

Alt-J are doing it for themselves. They aren’t concerned with image or genre specificity, nor are they led by a hubris bleeding one-person-bander. In fact, before watching a live performance, I assumed that bespectacled keys player (and Captain America composer) Gus Unger-Hamilton was the frontman, primarily because of his Paul Rust-esque leading man energy. But really, it could be any of the members—even when they perform live, they stand in an equitable line. For alt-J, internal hierarchy is unimportant. Hiring an opera singer for a few bars of “Philadelphia”—that’s what’s important. 

So when jocks started showing up at alt-J shows, the band members were understandably suspicious (“…the sort [of people] that we would be intimidated by in a bar,” said drummer Thom Sonny Green). After all, the trio make left-of-center pop music infused with pretty much everything you’d find in a zealous record collector’s archive—Afropop, electronica, opera, indie rock, cool jazz. Unorthodox synth and guitar lines are undercut by infallible rhythms (sans-cymbals). Esoteric pop culture references and morbid, death-related case studies are crooned atop via Joe Newman’s fluid falsetto. To put it another way, alt-J are iconoclasts. They are alt-garde. Yet doing things their way has garnered an empathic following, and it’s put them in a comfortable position when it comes to LP number four.

With a wide-ranging audience in the palm of its free left hand and a swanky new Islington studio in which to take its time, the band cooked up their most accessible collection of songs. The album came together over five years, and in that time, two of the members joined the New Dads Club. This unhurried approach combined with fatherly bliss has engendered a more measured, mature record as evidenced by the agreeable singles “U&ME” and “Hard Drive Gold”—pentatonic groove rockers that sound like a demented take on Jack White or the Black Keys. The former is a summer holiday reverie (yet not without reference to Skarsgård senior), and the latter a playful vignette of a 15-year-old cryptocurrency aficionado who becomes a millionaire (“My neighbor Sue is watching me from her window / Oh, mama, did you tell Sue I’m a millionaire now, baby?”).

Elsewhere, this well-heeled approach manifests in more earnest lyricism. Newman remains intrigued by death, but it’s packaged differently than, say, the landmine-triggered demise of D-Day photographer Robert Capa in the song “Taro” from their debut. “Get Better”, the album’s beating heart, imagines the aftermath of losing your partner to COVID while a thumbed acoustic builds and dissipates. There are affecting recollections of happy times together (“Your hand warmed walking through the gallery”) and a longing for the immeasurable contentment of shared quietude (“I still pretend you’re only out of sight / In another room, smiling at your phone”). 

But The Dream still indulges the band’s eccentric proclivities. “The Actor” looks at Catherine Evelyn Smith, the drug dealer/aspiring actor/Gordon Lightfoot groupie who injected the great John Belushi with his fatal ‘speedball’. A musical menagerie of stocky electro drums, fractured guitar ejaculations, and warped synth bass, it’s ebullient but with dark undertones (“He’s never gonna make it”). The cello-pop of “Happier When You’re Gone” is the golden mean between weird and well-watered. Newman—a true-crime podcast savant—may be singing about a woman who murders her husband, but it’s orchestrated in such a way that, if you aren’t paying attention, it could be read as a forlorn break-up number. 

“Powders”, the dreamy lounger that finalizes proceedings, includes a recording of a department store meet cute as timid piano clusters give way to a relaxed half-time drum groove. “I’m your man / I’m your man,” Newman repeats. It’s his serendipitous greeting to alt-J newcomers but also a suggestive reminder to old-timers who may have started to wander during the five-year album gap. Indie’s most eclectic ensemble are not slowing down so much as aging gracefully. The Dream confirms that it’s worth aging with them.

RATING 8 / 10