Want to feel old? Well, astonishingly, it has been a decade since Alt-J released their debut album, An Awesome Wave, which set the band on their path and secured the much-coveted Mercury Prize.
Since then, the band have continued to evolve, but new album The Dream is still unmistakeably Alt-J in every sense. Until 2018, the three-piece refused to step off the conveyor for a moment’s rest, permanently either working in the studio or playing live shows. A lot has changed since 2017’s Relaxer, with both singer Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger Hamilton becoming fathers, which has given The Dream an emphasis on the fragility of life.
Apart from perhaps the ironically commercial track ‘Left Hand Free’ from their second studio album This Is All Yours, Alt-J could never be accused of selling out or attempting to fit in with the stereotype of what a band should be and act. After all, their name is a Macbook shortcut, and on the choral opening track of The Dream, Joe Newman absurdly sings about dreaming of bathing in Coca-Cola.
Following the quirky opener, Alt-J have bundles of acerbic fun on ‘U&ME’, a track in which Newman gets wistful about “buying kimonos in the sun” at a festival in Australia before the dreaded pandemic kiboshed live music. After four albums, Newman’s warbly voice continues to beguile, especially on this poignant number as he repeats the line: “Hanging on to the memory of that day for the rest of my life”.
‘Hard Drive Gold’ provides the most toe-tapping moment on The Dream. Admittedly, the celebration of teenage crypto millionaires doesn’t quite sit right, especially considering the climate crisis and the further damage that those looking to make quick digital money is instilling on the planet. Nevertheless, even if like me you disagree with the subject, you’ll find yourself unknowingly – and slightly frustratingly – singing along to “don’t be afraid to make, to make money, boy”.
Alt-J then show off their tender side on the delightful ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ before Newman moves into full storytelling mode on ‘The Actor’. The material tells the tale of a failing Hollywood pretender who turns to dealing drugs in order to make ends meet before selling the deadly dose which, ultimately, kills the late actor John Belushi as he continually whispers ‘cocaine’ throughout the track like he’s four pints in on a Friday night.
The topic of death is prominent throughout the album, reappearing on the captivating yet heartbreaking ‘Get Better’, a song on which Newman deals with the fictional loss of a partner to Covid. Again, this topic rears its head on the borderline religious feeling prelude ‘Delta’ as the group harmonise in spellbinding style. The eeriness is then amplified as they burst into ‘Losing My Mind’, on which Newman questions his existence, and painfully asks: ‘Who am I?’, before admitting: ‘I’m losing my mind’. It’s Alt-J at their most profound, and it’s hard not to be reeled in by the haunting vocals conveyed straight from the heart.
Despite the dour theme that runs through the record, the closing track, ‘Powders’, leaves the album on a powerful, optimistic note as Newman sings: “I’m your man”. The effort ends with a spoken word segment, detailing the story of a man falling in love with a cashier girl and the overwhelming message that love will rescue the day.
The Dream is the most unrestrained that Alt-J have sounded so far on their journey, and it remains undeniable that they, as a collective, have continued to expand their horizons. The band’s off-beat DNA is running wild throughout the album, yet, after a decade, it’s still not gone stale and remains utterly hypnotising.