Four and a half years after their polarizing project Relaxer, British indie-rock titans alt-J have finally returned to sway opinions back in the opposite direction – essentially, by going full The 1975 and crafting a compilation of some of their craziest instrumental palates and songwriting concepts yet. With influences ranging from barbershop to opera and gospel to Chicago house, frontman Joe Newman’s echoey, lilting falsetto ties it all together as he offers some truly spaced-out and bizarre musings on the vices of fame and capitalism, alien invasions, and a somewhat uncomfortable number of tracks where the narrative he crafts ends in fatal tragedy. Mostly due to the sometimes-questionable lyrical content and vocal performances here, The Dream is a mixed bag of the highest order – but it’s certainly an ambitious undertaking that lives up to the lack of grounded reality suggested by its title.
The opening track “Bane” essentially functions as a hyper-dramatic overture that could have belonged in some kind of a musical theatre performance about gods and kings, switching rapidly between musical styles and motifs as Newman embodies the character of … a kid who’s addicted to Coca-Cola and gets aggressive when he drinks too much. The thematic implications of this certainly appear later with more drastic consequences, but hearing Biblical quotes juxtaposed with the rush of the bubbles on the speaker’s tongue is a pretty hilarious and effective lyrical exercise, even if it doesn’t come together into much of a song as it flits between prog-rock contemplative guitar loops, overwhelming gospel choruses, psychedelic indie and driving, soulful garage-rock. The track “U&ME,” by comparison, might be the most normal song here by far. A more straightforward, bright and summery tune about a perfect summer fling over languid and relaxing guitar loops, by the time slightly more eerie instrumental palates begin creeping in as the speaker gets a little more than he bargained for on a drug trip it still brings to mind the overarching theme of staying vigilant and not having TOO much fun.
For all of the lyrical satire Newman goes for on this project, it doesn’t often fully connect simply because he can tend to meander. The track “Hard Drive Gold” is the one that’s right on the money, as he offers an incisive look into the mindstates of everyone who genuinely believes they can get rich quick and conquer the world by trading cryptocurrency. From the perspective of a teenager blowing off his friends and teachers at school – even as they call him scum – it’s both the catchiest track here and the most poignant and funny, giving off the energy of a classic Black Keys hit as the narrator is overcome by greed. The track “Happier When You’re Gone,” on the other hand, is one of the better examples of Newman’s meandering – sometimes, it seems as if he throws in a shocking image or a winking, referential nod just for the sake of it. This track’s shocking image apparently comes from a personal experience, but it still has nothing to do with the tale of domestic abuse he paints here that could have been a lot more effective if he stuck to the story. There’s also not much of a connecting thread to be found when it comes to the tune. The band can’t decide which motif to settle on once again, the instrumental underscoring the project’s weakest vocal performance. “The Actor” is another one that sees Newman take a strange lyrical approach, this time swinging to the other end of the pendulum and becoming far too on-the-nose. The track is another highly compelling tale of addiction that he sells with his exasperated vocal performance, the character drawn inexplicably to something he knows is killing him, but it would have been so much better if he trusted his audience to solve the riddle instead of drawling “cocaine” a couple times.
The track “Get Better” is likely the biggest crime of missed potential here, a 6-minute track about grief that offers some lyrical passages that might have had me tearing up if it didn’t insist on becoming a completely out-of-place dedication to frontline workers, or insert some immersion-breaking cringeworthy lyrics right after some of the project’s most striking. There are some absolutely heartbreaking images here as the soft-spoken narrator reminisces on the good times and describes the uncomfortable silence in his home after his wife’s death in a car crash, Newman’s vocal delivery simultaneously crushed and full of love. The most minimal acoustic instrumental here really pays off, but there was no need to date a timeless story like this one with out-of-place references that take you out of its beauty. The strangely morbid themes continue in a string of tracks, although some of the most interesting musical decisions accompany them. “Chicago” details a sibling hike gone wrong as one tumbles off a cliff, while “Philadelphia” is from the perspective of someone slowly losing consciousness after being pushed down a staircase – it’s all a little uncomfortably grotesque, feeling unearned, but the skittering house beat on the former and the absolutely wild mixture of the indie-rock guitars with an opera sample, medieval-sounding instruments and a bass-heavy vocal performance full of gravitas on the latter are completely invigorating.
The track “Walk A Mile” has been said to have come from an impromptu jam session, which is rather obvious – after an opening delivered by Newman’s old barbershop quartet friends, it turns into a six-and-a-half-minute bluesy meditation as Newman repeats lyrics with different musical underscoring and vocal riffing, not coming across nearly as compelling as they believe it does – I wish there was more of the barbershop stuff. After a minute-long interlude about an alien attack, “Losing My Mind” feels almost like a parody of what came before. After suddenly smacking listeners with the image of a serial killer and a classroom’s worth of dead children, the story that’s meant to be built around it is seemingly nonsensical, with diversions into German and repetitive, surface-level observations – it seems like at the end it settles into being a statement on it being impossible to fathom being of the same species as someone who’s caused so much pain, which is interesting – but it takes a lot to get there. “Powders” thankfully closes things on a wholesome note. For how many artists there are who fail miserably at writing from the perspective of kids and teens, Newman is kind of a master at it. His lyrical specificity perfectly captures what it was like to be growing up and having all your “firsts.” The album fades out with a shuffling, midtempo slow dance as the narrator locks eyes with someone intriguing across the dance floor.
The Dream is certainly a lot to take in, but certain parts of it are likely going to mean quite a lot to many different people, depending on their situation. The only thing that’s clear is that alt-J, contrary to public opinion after their last project, are far from having nothing left in the creative tank.
Favourite Tracks: Philadelphia, Hard Drive Gold, Get Better, Powders
Least Favourite Track: Losing My Mind