“It’s the contradictions, stupid”
I’m always surprised by how commercially successful alt-J are. It’s not exactly easy listening. I’m not even sure they are really songs, at least not in the conventional sense.
Released in late summer 2014, This Is All Yours was the eagerly anticipated follow up to Mercury Prize winning, unit shifting An Awesome Wave. It was immediately clear that in the two years since their debut the band had matured, creating a sound that was still distinctive and totally unique, but somehow more mature, more developed, less fragmented. In some ways that could have been a drawback. After all, An Awesome Wave was just so…different. Like nothing else. Those voices and the fractured rhythms. Weird syncopation. But whilst This Is All Yours was just as quirky and unconventional, it contained a collection of pieces that were undeniably stronger.
It’s also got more heft, weighing in at an hour and four minutes. My vinyl version (beautifully presented) is a double album, with one slab of red vinyl and one yellow. But it’s four short sides, meaning that we listeners are left wondering whether this is a long single album spilling on to two discs or an abridged double. No matter, there’s no filler here.
We still have lyrics that are completely at odds with the personalities involved. Hip hop words that threaten to ‘pop clips, bitch’ and ‘drawing his piece to his hip’. From middle-class English boys? Yet it works brilliantly, never seeming unauthentic.
Every Other Freckle threatens and menaces and leaves us under no illusion that these nice boys are actually insane fetishists living in the shadows when the front door closes. The finest tracks come on side three though. The astonishing Hunger of the Pine opens and features a sample of Miley Cyrus no less, emphasising that she’s a female rebel. It’s here that Joe Newman’s voice peaks, especially in the harmonies which make your spine tingle. Warm Foothills is reminiscent of Fleet Foxes at their finest with a really unconventional call and response pattern. And closing side three is Gospel of John Hurt. Again, the harmonies soar majestically as the song unfolds and grows and spreads.
So, it’s unconventional. Not only on the surface, but even (especially) when you dig deeper. But that’s the brilliance of alt-J. That’s what makes them unique. And that’s why This Is All Yours is one of the albums of the decade.