Alt-J An Awesome Wave
The A.V. Club reviews a lot of records every week, but some things still slip through the cracks. Stuff We Missed looks back at notable releases from this year that we didn't review at their time of release.
Alt-J is the winner of this year’s Barclaycard Mercury Prize, the latest holder of the “new Radiohead” moniker, and currently surfing high on a set of hyperbolic press. That puts a lot of pressure on the British quartet, though—especially considering that its debut record, the fortuitously titled An Awesome Wave, is the result of five years’ worth of songwriting and creativity. And while the best bands should be able to stand up to the hype, shrug off the Radiohead comparisons, and soldier on with musicianship intact, Alt-J isn’t one of those bands.
But An Awesome Wave is still a pretty record. The melodies are pleasant, and the spacey, Simon And Garfunkel-influenced vocal harmonies are soothing. Listeners might find themselves humming the tunes absentmindedly—though generally without specific lyrics, because the vocals are almost unintelligible, save for a few hokey lines like, “Triangles are my favorite shape.” But as a whole, An Awesome Wave doesn’t make much impression.
While singles like “Tessellate” and “Something Good” should capture the hearts of mope-rock lovers, they’re unlikely to make a permanent impact on the world at large. That’s partially by design. The band told Interview earlier this year that it isn’t exactly out to change the world: “We don’t try to go out of the box or be innovative. We just try to play music we like to hear.” That kind of Mumford & Sons blandness may be what led Pitchfork to call the quartet “neutered,” but it’s also led to tons of radio play. “Tessellate” has hit the top 20 in the UK, and is making the rounds on American alternative radio. As years of Billboard charts have proved, though, popularity doesn’t equal artistry.
While it’s easy to be skeptical about buzz bands, it’s usually for a good reason. Alt-J reads as a little too contrived to be authentic. It warbles instead of rocks. The fuzzy bass on “Dissolve” seems like it was made in GarageBand, rather than by an actual fuzzy bass. The record’s three short interludes feel arbitrary, thrown in to make it somehow feel smarter, the music equivalent of studious-looking glasses without lenses. Other tracks that sparkle feel just a little too perfect, too manmade. They’re lab-made cubic zirconium instead of actual diamonds forged from the earth’s imperfections. Even the band’s naming story feels a little too perfect. “Alt-J” is actually a placeholder for what those keystrokes actually result in: ∆, or the delta symbol, which the band says it chose because “it’s used to show change,” which the members felt like they were going through at the time.
One good thing about the modern music landscape is that there’s a place for all types of music, from crusty grindcore to shiny ballads. What there shouldn’t be a place for is music that feels like it was churned out by a machine. Soulless, emotionless tunes weaken the core of artistic integrity by making music that sounds like something anyone with a guitar can make, rather than something an artist has to make. An Awesome Wave washes over its beached listeners, pleasantly cooling them for a second, then making its retreat back into an ocean of sameness.