We’re trying to choose our words carefully here, because we’re almost tempted to write “profound” while describing an alt-J album. Who’da’ thunk? Well, it sounds as though that’s at least what they’re aspiring to here on their second album.
Depending on which circles you deal in for your arty/indie credibility, this Leeds-born trio (formerly a quartet) had proved pretty polarizing when they broke in 2012. The awarding of the esteemed Mercury Music Prize (for their debut full length, An Awesome Wave) seemed to just drive the stick further into the respective craws of beguiled haters. Let’s just say, some looked at ‘em sideways, or, rather, listened sideways.
Maybe “bold” is a safer word for This Is All Yours. After all, they’re out to prove something here; particularly that they can survive that “sophomore slump” that some bands suffer. By now, you might have heard the pair of singles, either the flamboyantly twangy trad-rock tinged “Left Hand Free” or the quirky cavorted whirling of “Every Other Freckle.” They’re definitely the singles. The rest is pretty, well, we’ll say conceptual.
It’s certainly disarming to enter the album by way of the nearly five-minute “Intro,” shunting at you with its striking percussive rain of wordless “la la la la”s tongued along to minimalist guitars and the celestial wheeze of an organ, leading you still further into the atmospheric pool where various other vocal chanting, some heavily effected for prime bedazzlement, tide against each other. And just as you’re about to ask yourself what the J is going on here, drums thunder in and singer Joe Newman’s uncannily soulful voice intonates something tangibly human with actual verses. But then it gets weird again.
The second track, “Arrival In Nara,” traipses its hallowed-sounding piano melody liltingly like a love-spelled cherub through a soft, hazy forest for nearly two minutes’ worth of atmospheric scene-setting before the regally folk melody employed by Newman’s whispery voice arrives. It’s evident, early, that the intent was to defy the typical pop/rock album structure of kicking things off with an opener and then leading right into your radio-ready single.
Finally, with track three, “Nara,” we start to hear a much fuller arrangement, pianos perpendicular to cascading guitars seeping upon church bells and organs, then fading away for this brief, funky little bass line slithering over a muffled march of drums. And that’s kinda how it goes, song to song: capricious switching of time signatures, temperaments and timbres.
Interlaying so many different phrasings, moods and sounds evokes this impression of traveling through a gallery of sonic sensibilities. There is a deeply embedded sense of travel in that certain melodies or musical sounds will never repeat, thus the arrangements feel exploratory or impulsive.
You’re 15 minutes deep into the album before any punchy beat or indelible refrain has hooked some kind of catchy earworm onto your lobe. And we haven’t even mentioned the curious baroque duet of fipple flutes (“Garden Of England”) that serves as a entre’acte. Interesting. Or…weird? Profound?
Look, it might hit you right away with Yours; you might instantly hear (or recognize) how unique or possibly “profound” these expansive neo-folk/pop-opera pieces are, but, if not, it’ll just ask your patience to allow the potentially redolent ambiance to envelope you. If you are patient, though, you’ll follow through to the intricate harmonic counterpoints of “Warm Foothills,” with its quartet of vocalists serenading this inspiring, albeit cutesy gem.
All of these pizzicato strings, these wispy woodwinds, these stark drum parts and these wordless intonations, the word that they tempt is “orchestral.” And “orchestral” always invites profoundness. Then again, maybe there’s another P-word. Pretentious? We think some of you can maybe hear both on this, but we’re rooting for the profound side to win.