Illustration by Ben Beechener
Alt-J’s long anticipated fourth studio album, The Dream, arrived on 11th February on the back of four single releases and has immediately been met with gleaming reviews. From the conscious effort of Joe Newman, their chief song-writer, to turn towards writing based on his own stories rather than obscure references and the musical push towards “weirder and wilder places”, this album is a rollercoaster of delight from start to finish.
The emotional to-and-fro between the darkness of loss and bereavement during the pandemic (“Get Better”) and the satirical comment on the current cryptocurrency obsession (“Hard Drive Gold”) could have presented an issue for the cohesion of the album. But it is precisely this “ebb and flow dynamic” which makes the album so exciting and, quite frankly, a dream to listen to.
The album kicks off with “Bane”, which starts as an intense and moody choral chant about selling one’s soul. It perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the album with its odd juxtaposition of deep human emotions with the comedically mundane – in this case greed, anger and violence alongside the pleasures of fizzy cola.
This punchy opener leads nicely into one of the pre-released singles from the album: “U&ME”. Its more straightforwardly pop-y sound and lyrics make it the perfect summer anthem, while its beautiful outro, from 2:50 onwards, demonstrates the band’s musical talent.
Produced around a single riff and written in less than half-an hour, “Hard Drive Gold” is the “Left Hand Free” of this album and, like its This Is All Yours counterpart, is a tongue-in-cheek, pop-style ballad about the juvenile teenage fantasy of cryptocurrency. I think it is destined to become the most commercially popular of the tracks on the album, while still maintaining true alt-J frivolity.
Following on from these two light-hearted songs comes a string of more serious tracks: “Happier When You’re Gone”, “The Actor”, and “Get Better”. The former of these three songs is a hard-hitter, musically and lyrically, as it deals with a hostile domestic environment with a distinct lack of warmth and affection. In contrast, “The Actor” has a more rugged sound to it, telling the story of a desperate actor trying to make it big in the brutal climate of drugs, alcoholism and death in 1980s LA. “Get Better” presents another beautiful melody in addressing the emotions of grief, specifically in the pandemic. I find one of the most poignant lines to be: “I still pretend, you’re only out of sight in another room smiling at your phone”. Newman has even called “Get Better” “the most honest song I’ve written”, and it certainly is honest enough to move you to tears.
“Chicago” comes next in the album and is, I think, an underdog track. It is one of the more abstract songs, both lyrically and musically, as it tells the story of a brother and sister on a hike; the eerie crescendos, pulsating rhythm and choral interlude give it a dark tone which is captivating to listen to.
Stranger still is the following track, “Philadelphia”, which details the last moments of someone dying in an alleyway, and includes an opera singer belting the word “Philadelphia” throughout the song. It is still a thoroughly enjoyable experience, however, even if the narrative of track is harder to follow.
“Walk a Mile” is a less macabre song and slows the album’s pace down to one reminiscent of “U&ME” and “Hard Drive Gold”. Newman concedes that the lyrics on this song are simpler than many of the others, but he reveals that this was in favour of highlighting the rich and diverse melodies.
This slower pace is continued with the short, harmonic, stripped-back interlude “Delta”, which fittingly incorporates the symbol of the band into the album – the alt-J keyboard shortcut forms the uppercase Greek letter, delta. Newman says of this track that he liked the concept of the lyric: “I’m not a praying man, but I’ll kneel to that”, an idea around which he framed the whole interlude.
This track transitions flawlessly into another stand-out piece: “Losing My Mind”. This song, besides being musically beautiful with its slip into the minor key for the chorus, is the most profound look into the human condition on the album. It explores the boundaries of civilised humanity, namely the way in which serial killers are “cut from the same cloth” as everyone else.
The album is then brought to a close with “Powders” which turns the pessimism of “Losing My Mind” on its head by looking at one of the purest and innocent instances of human existence: when teenage boy meets girl. The spoken words in the outro which overlay the beautiful melody, are simply sublime:
“I watch her hands
‘Okay, that’ll be £49.95’
I think I love her.”
Alongside the album, the band also kept current with the times by creating NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) for a few of their single releases, and producing cryptic puzzles for their fans to access the album earlier. This proves that alt-J are serious about maintaining their connection to fans, as well as producing mould-breaking and delightful music. The Dream truly is a stunning collection of tracks. It is the perfect catharsis for the turmoil we have all been through for the past few years: simply a dream for all to enjoy.