From the start, Relaxer, the third album from the alt-prog indietron band alt-J, appears to be a rabbit hole of Alice-In-Wonderland proportions. The UK group initially teased the record with a cryptic code of zeroes and ones, which translates to “3WW,” the name of the album’s ambient, acoustic opener. The same code later becomes the mental mantra of a deranged killer in the Bond theme-like “In Cold Blood.” Just as strong as their previous two albums, Relaxer sees alt-J continuing to explore new sonic territory, mixing powerful beats with dangerous, heart-wrenching tales.
The band seems to be calmly inviting you to try some deep dives with them, taking you from English royal history and a disgraced Tudor queen, to a jail in Ireland, to the cold bottom of a pool in summer, to Van Gogh’s asylum.
alt-J can twist ordinary feelings into something darkly seductive and unsettling, peeling away comfortable layers of emotion until all that’s left is its raw, exposed core. Each song reveals its own slice of disturbed history, set to the band’s warped perceptions of sadness, death and lust, with cold reality as its backbone.
Audibly, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can’t do – manipulating strings, using falsetto to convey feelings as discordant as biting mockery and personal vulnerability, or mixing percussive rock with tempo changes that arrive like a sudden pressure drop. Symmetry and poetry in lines like “Pool summer summer pool pool summer,” the chants of zeroes and ones, and the rote counting up to 10 in Japanese ties the stories together.
On “Hit Me Like That Snare,” vocalist Joe Newman sounds like a RZA-inspired pulp-fiction frat boy; on the other end of the spectrum is the communal buzz of “3WW” with sonic shades of acoustic folktronica and smoldering vocals from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. Funky “Deadcrush,” with its slick shuffling, heaving percussion and falsetto sarcasm, delivers lyrics resembling a fuzzed-up haiku. The song makes a literal play on Anne Boleyn, with lines as familiar as a child’s gothic nursery rhyme (“Unknown artist /Took your likeness /Henry Tudor left you lifeless”).
The uneasy “Adeline” references the Irish ballad “The Auld Triangle” about a jail designed to punish prisoners incessantly, while “Last Year” darkly echoes the quiet, touching harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will.” “Pleader” closes out the album abroad a seemingly lush valley—perhaps an attempt to reconcile with the dangerous, forbidden thoughts on Relaxer, but it fails to fully wipe those thoughts away.
If we want to be nitpicky, you could say the group’s liberal use of phrases like “toe to toe,” and “hugs become hold-ons,” and the mentions of levers and buttons being pressed, but right now that just seems a personality trait. If a few repeat words are to be heard in exchange for music as daring as this, alt-J should keep it up.