Ten years ago, alt-J shot to prominence with their Mercury Prize-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave, which laid the foundations for garnering an international following that has seen the band perform sell-out shows at venues such as Madison Square Garden and London’s O2 Arena. Two further albums, 2014’s This Is All Yours – which topped the UK Album Charts – and 2017’s Relaxer, secured the band’s penchant for eclecticism, never shying away from experimenting with different sounds and styles.
The Dream provides yet another wonderfully captivating record from the band formed in Leeds in 2007. Diverse, both lyrically and musically, it absorbs the listener into wondering where it will turn next with an outwardly more direct and personal approach than the previous offerings. Having decided to set aside 2019 as a year of reflection, the band came together in January 2020 to record their fourth album with long-time producer Charlie Andrew, managing to successfully navigate the Coronavirus pandemic and the issues which stemmed from it, to finalise recording by July 2021.
The trio of; Joe Newman, Thom Sonny Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton have been noted for their use of post-modern lyrics, which is again evident on The Dream. Opener’ Bane’, which begins by balancing a delicate guitar riff with hypnotic chanting, focuses on a craving for Coca-Cola, while ‘Hard Drive Gold’ is centred around the seemingly ever-growing rush for cryptocurrencies.
Although some lyrical topics may seem whimsical at face value, there are several moments of deep storytelling that allow the listener to contemplate and draw their own conclusions. ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ tells a breakup story, set to a calming string arrangement. ‘Get Better’, a moving acoustic number, is the record’s most emotional offering. It is also the only track that directly acknowledges the pandemic, with the line “I’ll start the day with tiramisu, raise a spoon to frontline workers / An underfunded principle, they risk all to be there for us”. While there may be an element of darkness to the album, Newman attributes this to the true-crime podcasts he has listened to over the last five years rather than the pandemic.
‘U&ME’ is the most accessible track on the album and arguably the band’s career. Having been born from soundchecks for shows back in 2019, it has all the hallmarks of a feel-good summer song, despite being released in late September.
Another dark offering, ‘Losing My Mind,’ explores the rationale of a serial killer, with the repetitive chorus of “I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my mind”, serving to hammer home the haunting feel to the song. The constantly changing elements of the record are again exhibited as the song abruptly finishes leading into gentle closer ‘Powders’, a subtle number about young love that fades the album out on a relaxing note.
In the past, alt-J have been accused of lacking an identity and not knowing which genre they fit into. Perhaps that is what endears the band to so many, like an actor not wanting to be typecast as a specific character or role. The band has allowed themselves to experiment and explore. The experimentation and exploration have flourishingly continued on The Dream. Whether it is up-tempo pop numbers or moving acoustic ballads, the record offers something for everyone. One can only hesitate a guess at which direction they will turn next.