This Is All Yours
23 September 2014 (Infectious)
By Josh Hughes
alt-J are polarized in the music sphere in the same manner as Childish Gambino. They’re beloved by some, and by others, well, it’s a crime if you considered them in the big leagues. But the fact of it is, whether outsider music or unoriginal regurgitations, it’s ridiculous to lay claim that certain groups of music shouldn’t be considered into what defines ‘real’ music. It’s all real music. So, sorry to those who think alt-J commercialized the Kid A high art appeal, but by their second album, it’s a good time to reevaluate your predisposed opinions and start to wonder why people are listening to these guys- and enjoying it.
Let’s get back to the specific groups who idolize their music; they won the Mercury Prize in 2012 for their playfully weird debut and garnered immediate acclaim as a sort of second coming of Radiohead, or some knockoff wonderkids of MGMT. However, truth be told, Radiohead sounds weird to their own enjoyment, Thom Yorke and co. writing danceable anthems in 5/4 because they take pleasure in challenging musical norms for the sake of art (or whatever meaning that word has left). alt-J, on the other hand, as with MGMT, sound weird and experimental because it puts them above the pack of average poppy acts that come in dozens nearly every week. Now it’s not a method of ‘selling out’ as some would call it, but it allows shorter attention spans and less imaginative google users (alt-rock 2k14, that song with miley cyrus) to find challenging music.
Debut “An Awesome Wave” was effortlessly cool with a strange, new, and easily identifiable voice backed by bursts of odd electro indebted math-rock and even cooler bursts of silence. Very epic at its core, “Wave” spanned 14 songs long, and felt like a journey to get all the way through, while remaining more accessible and likeable than your average concept album (it wasn’t a concept album, but it felt like it). In vein with this idea, alt-J approached their follow up with many of the same tactics, though it’s even more overblown because the obvious worries of a sophomore slump. This time around, instead of being an unknown band allowed to be weird in anyway they desire, they’re a well known band with expectations of being weird. Therefore, it’s an expected album in its oddness. The left turn Miley Cyrus sampling “Hunger of The Pine” is the best risk they take because it’s so far from their expected canon that it actually keeps its surprise factor in check.
Just as with the debut, “TIAY” opens with an intro and is filled with a couple odd interlude pieces. “Intro” is meticulously crafted, with a choral symphony followed by the expected acoustic snares and bass induced grooves they’re known for. Its climax revolves around a coda with Eastern plucked instruments, more bravely asserting the ideas in “Taro”. However, it only serves as a fun intro, and the next two tracks don’t carry enough weight as second and third tracks should. “Arrival In Nara”, the first of a trilogy allegedly about a Japanese city (it evokes more cobblestone houses than parks in the middle of sprawling downtowns) carries a lovely piano melody, but would better fit a third act track. The problem is, even the track after this falls under the same quietness, and by this point the album feels too much of a charade. It’s experimental, yet practically and foreseeably so. By the time this teasing is done with, the final result is “Every Other Freckle”, one of the coolest alt-rock singles of the year. It doesn’t bear the clarity of “Fitzpleasure” nor the slick catchiness of “Breezeblocks”, which remains their strongest song. Nevertheless, if you haven’t heard the single before you’re listening to the album, it almost (almost) makes the opening sprawl worth it. The next track, “Left Hand Free” is their most conventional song to date, and while it’s got a great hook, apart from the vocals and instrumentation, it’s a bit of a mishmash of your average pop song. A third section would give it the necessary boost to make it consistently interesting with replay value, but barely at 3 minutes, it feels a very commercial move.
On the bright side, the second half of the album is where things get weird in a cool way. After a rather pointless instrumental, and, well, another benign and quiet track “Choice Kingdom”, “Hunger Of The Pine” jumps in. It’s possibly their best statement to date, forging their tendencies for awkward grooves with epic buildups. Full with the Miley sample, the song floats around with conflicting time signatures, surging chords and geometric drumming. Apparently they wrote this as one of the last songs on the album, when they were finally off the road, and it presents them at their tightest and most vibrant. All in all, its simplicity and succinct vision make for a really good alt-J song, free of all that weird jumbled nonsense.
The following duo of songs “Warm Foothills” and “The Gospel Of John Hurt” take their newfound subdued style and add depth. It’s the one trio of songs on the album where alt-J’s vision most thoroughly shines through. If they crafted an album full of these folk songs and restrained wonderlands, it’d probably be amazing. The annoyance of a half empty thirteen track album is also most relevant in this section. It’s a lesson that sometimes less really can be more. Put “Hunger Of The Pine”, “Every Other Freckle”, “Warm Foothills”, “The Gospel Of John Hurt”, “Bloodflood Pt. 2”, and “Left Hand Free” on a short EP and I’d be more satisfied than with the full length. Its epicness falls short of its ambition, and when it comes down to a sentence, that’s the misstep in “This Is All Yours”. The playfulness of “AAW” tries to repeat itself, and drastically falls short because of how precisely they copy the formula.
It must be said that this unsurprisingly weird album is an interesting statement on the entire idea of sophomore albums. It’s been long enough since we’ve put a band this fresh up to the stakes of musical masterminds (The Strokes, Interpol, Vampire Weekend), but, fortunately, alt-J gave it their all and then some to stay relevant. While “This Is All Yours” may make up half of their legacy in 2014, in some fifteen years it could merely be a footnote in a longstanding career of great, focused alt-rock. There’s a clear presence of great musicianship that simply fails to intrigue as much as their debut did, but it’s undeniable that alt-J is writing catchy, unpredictable songs with more gusto than most current artists could fathom. I wish them the best of luck in their future, and will inevitably replay about a third of this album for the foreseeable future.
Favorite Tracks: “Intro”, “Hunger of The Pine”, “Every Other Freckle”