Don’t let the title deceive you; Relaxer is anything but relaxing. Sure, there are calm moments, but even those seem to drift along with a sense of foreboding distress and lingering fear. Relaxer is alt-J at their most unsettled and most indecisive – whether it’s the sprawling folktronica of 3WW, the gloomy art punk of Hit Me Like That Snare, or the tides of orchestras on Adeline, alt-J find themselves abandoning their typical indie rock for sonic experiments and new ideas. Somehow, against all the odds, Relaxer’s eight diverse and endlessly dissimilar tracks come together to form alt-J’s best album yet.
Relaxer opens with moody lead single 3WW – it’s pensive folktronica at it’s best, almost Bon Iver’s 22, A Million if he was more art pop and less electronic obscura. Subdued, glossy guitarwork rides atop synthetic claps and rolling bass; but Relaxer’s first minute is the calm before the storm. Lush refrains roar into the scene, interrupting the band’s folksy storytelling before returning to restrained balladry again. With the London Metropolitan Orchestra in tow, alt-J sound like a whole new band.
Much like the opener, In Cold Blood rarely lingers on a single musical idea, constantly alternating between high powered horn sections, glitzy country rock, and streams of synthesisers. Relaxer is alt-J at their most erratic – the band find themselves torn between hopelessly romantic folk reinventions and eclectic art rock, rarely content with the concept of sticking to a musical motif for more than a couple of minutes. Even with eight tracks, alt-J find plenty of room to be indecisive.
Hit Me Like That Snare is arguably Relaxer’s most straightforward track, combining the attitude of lo-fi garage rock with atypical sonic experimentation, rolling it all into some sort of all over the place alt-J art punk. The track’s distorted breakdown leads into Deadcrush, another unpredictable foray, but this time into gloomy indietronica and hauntingly catchy sample hooks. Yet as uncharacteristic as these tracks are, there’s still something very alt-J about them – it’s Relaxer’s folkier and baroquier cuts that are truly massive departures for the trio.
alt-J rearrange a traditional folk ballad on House of the Rising Sun, adding both an extra verse and lush orchestral sections that transform the song into powerful introspective musings rather than just a simple cover. Strings ebb and flow like waves and tides, forming bittersweet backdrops to an equally melancholic vocal performance. It’s hard to see how this track fits in at first, nestled between In Cold Blood and Hit Me Like That Snare, but somehow it beautifully complements those more high octane performances and works perfectly.
Relaxer’s final three tracks are a (somewhat) relaxing comedown from the dysfunctional art pop of the album’s first half – orchestral folk ballad Adeline is an epic, sprawling piece that only builds and builds as it goes on, strings swelling and tensions growing as it nears its finale. Every little moving part in Adeline is so meticulously put together; on cue, mopeds drone in the distance, choirs echo amidst a wall of sound, and drums boom beneath monumental orchestral arrangements. For a song the band themselves described as “about a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a woman,” Adeline is an endlessly heartwrenching and evocative song.
Last Year ventures into more lo-fi folk territory, evoking wintery winds and melancholic memories in a six minute recollection of the past. The song’s second half lives in the frame of the other – a song within a song – but a bittersweet companion to the despairing first half. Final track Pleader resolves Relaxer’s tangled threads – sparse ambience and fluttering guitars pave the way for light string sections and jangly percussion, but very quickly, Pleader evolves into something so completely different. Despondent orchestras and sullen drums suddenly break out into powerful choral refrains of “How green, how green was my valley!” and “Victoria! Victoria!” Pleader takes on almost a prayer-like form, as Relaxer’s final two minutes transform into an irreligious hymn rife with literary allusions and spiritual awakenings. Relaxer’s closing moments are its most truly calm.
Relaxer is more than just an impressive third album, but an immense reinvention for the band themselves. At no point on Relaxer do alt-J stumble; rather, they find themselves at ease with a myriad of musical experiments in off-kilter folk and messy art rock. Relaxer is diverse, messy, and unforgettable.
93 / 100