REVIEW: alt-J – The Dream

I fell out with alt-J hard after their dreadful third album Relaxer. I was hoping that The Dream would be something of a redemption and help us to heal. Sadly, I’ve realised I’ve not forgiven them yet. Is it their best music in years? Yes. Is that enough? Still TBC.

I have been agonising over this review for a few weeks now, listening to the album over and over, and I’m still not sure if I like it or not. I do, and then I don’t again. For every catchy tune there is an odd barbershop passage. For every touching personal lyric, there is a couplet that lands just on the wrong side of odd. I go to bed thinking I hate it, then wake up with ‘Bane’, ‘U&ME’ or ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ in my head.

So where the hell have I landed after all that? The Dream annoys me. If I ever make a return listen in future I’ll only be reminded of this review and how many unfulfilling listens I gave it. They’ve returned to an old version of themselves. Which is exactly what we wanted on Relaxer but we didn’t get. But Relaxer was five years ago and a lot has changed since. I’m ready for something innovative from the band (although album four is unlikely to be the time to do this) but something innovative we do not get. Perhaps that’s harsh, they do try some new things, albeit with limited success. I’ve already mentioned the plain strange barbershop moment at the start of ‘Walk a Mile’ like they’re soundtracking To Kill A Mockingbird: The Musical, and the middle of ‘Chicago’ is as close to an all-out banger that alt-J are ever likely to get.

The 2022 version of alt-J reminds me of Kings of Leon at a similar stage in their career. Not in terms of musical style of course, but in how they made another album that capitalised on their already established and popular sound. It was easy to get sucked in because it seemed like exactly what you wanted. The experience was similar to a meal at a multinational burger chain. Familiar, yet bland and unsatisfying, only to leave you hungry again an hour later. You want more but at the same time you’ve already forgotten it. 

There is one area where many of alt-J’s past detractors will say they have changed for the better. Anyone hoping for more discernible lyrics will be happy in glimpses, especially on the many catchy choruses. ‘Get Better’ show a tender side too with lyrics confronting death and grief head on: ‘I stand and watch the white sheet go / Over the family car and I close my eyes / I still pretend you’re only out of sight in another room / Smiling at your phone’. Decipherable, on the other hand, they are not all: ‘Cola, cola, fizzy cola!’, ‘66 times underwater sumersault’. At other times the words veer towards lazy, leaning on the unimaginative songwriting tropes of repeating the names of drugs (‘cocaine’) and American place names (‘California, Pensacola’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Philadelphia’) over and over.

After ‘Philadelphia’, the album drags. Even after a week of listening, I came back to the album thinking I had never heard the final quarter before.

So yes it is their best in a long time and it has plenty of redeeming moments. Ultimately though, my life has changed in the last decade while alt-J haven’t. It does not move me in the way that early tracks like ‘Breezeblock’ or ‘Tesselate’ did back in 2012. No apologies for being the ‘I prefer their earlier work’ guy on this occasion. That’s just the way it is.

Words by James Spearing

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