When Alt-J broke out of Leeds, England, in 2012, they scored a coup many U.K. acts dream of but few attain. Not big sales or coveted awards (though they did fine in both regards) – they got dubbed a “New Radiohead,” following in the steps of titans like Coldplay and Muse. For young British art-rockers, that’s pretty much the equivalent of dating a model and playing center mid for Chelsea.
Back home, all the fuss has made Alt-J overnight indie stars. Here, they’re a festival attraction with a fan base that’s likely to get much bigger thanks to their second album. Like their debut, An Awesome Wave, it’s an ambling, entrancing listen – full of songs that blur weird folk and electronic zoinkiness, classical filigree and straight-up rock, scrambling in all directions as singer-guitarist Joe Newman sings in a pillowy Kid A warble. Their name was inspired by a Mac keyboard shortcut. Talk about getting your Yorke on.
One major difference between Alt-J and past New Radioheads (say, Travis or Doves) is that they don’t sound particularly miserable. There isn’t much gear-grinding or noisemongering here. In fact, Newman usually comes off more like a good-natured Sixties folk rocker than a 21st-century grumpus.
Many of his songs are love songs, just not like any you’ve heard before. “Arrival in Nara”/”Nara”/”Leaving Nara” is a dark, vaguely pagan song cycle set in a region of Japan known for its wild deer; over pensive guitar and processional drums, churchy vocals herald some freaky shit: “Love is a pharaoh and he’s boning me,” Newman sings. On “Every Other Freckle,” over a track that veers from slow, torrid guitar rock to goofy pennywhistle jam and back, Newman comes up with some sex metaphors that go from creepily adorkable (“I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag”) to downright yuck (“Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”).
The coup de grâce moment of gold-medal oddity is “Hunger of the Pine.” The song begins with EKG electro ripples and Newman cooing about the chain mail around his heart. Minimal orchestration swells up as the beat gets sad and kinky. Then, shockingly, a sample of Miley Cyrus bragging “I’m a female rebel” on her hick-hop hit “4×4” comes out of nowhere – and, amazingly, weaves perfectly into the vocals, which later turn into French. It’s like a Gothic abbey that’s also a sports arena that’s also a Chuck E. Cheese’s.
That nod to the world of pop says a lot about this band. Some of the most enjoyable music on This Is All Yours is the simplest, kindest and funniest – songs like “Warm Foothills,” a rustic ditty with chopped-up vocals from Conor Oberst that’s only a hayride away from Mumford & Sons, or “Left Hand Free,” which sounds like a loopy alt-rock hit from the Nineties, with a Southern-fried beat and some low-fi guitar action. You’ve gotta love a band that writes a drum-heavy space-folk hymn (“The Gospel of John Hurt”) inspired by the actor who had a monster pop out of his gut in the movie Alien. These guys know that alienation works best when it’s a little bit fun.