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alt-J and Commercially Successful Experimentation, by GraciAnn Hicks

“Needs more cowbell” isn’t something you’ll hear me say about alt-J. For those who don’t understand the reference, do yourself a favor, and check out the iconic SNL skit.


alt-J reigns as the current weirdos of British rock. The trio consists of a classically trained pianist on keys, a self-trained lead singer and guitarist, and a mostly deaf drummer who substitutes cymbals for a cowbell—hence my SNL reference. This concoction of musical backgrounds makes for a sound that doesn’t resemble any other current bands.


alt-J is known for their rich harmonies, pop cultural references, and unique percussion. Despite the band’s oddities, they’ve achieved commercial success, with their first three albums charting in top 40% of the Billboard 200.


With the recent release of their fourth album, The Dream, the group says it’s their most experimental to date. In an interview with Rolling Stone, vocalist and keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton said, “This is gonna sound really extreme, but something died on Relaxer and something was reborn on The Dream.”


As I saw the band’s passion shine through with each promotion post, my excitement for the album grew . Although, I wondered how the tracks could be more experimental than their previous work. Their most successful single within the US features an organ solo whereas their most successful single on the UK charts samples a Miley Cyrus song. With an experimental range this expansive within a single album, my fear and my excitement clashed in anticipation of my first listen.


The Dream’s first single U&MESk8er Boi–esque name aside—was a smart leading single. It sounds upbeat with its full instrumentation throughout while the sound of skateboarding in the background and the school choir on backing vocals remind listeners it’s still an alt-J track. Quirks aside, it’s definitely not the album’s strongest song, let alone the strongest single.


Get Better, the album’s second single, presents alt-J’s most stripped-back song to date. The instrumentation features acoustic guitar and little else. This allows the lyrics and melody to breathe more, taking dominance of the track. The song may not be an innovation, but it’s the most emotionally raw as it details dealing with a partner’s death during the pandemic.


The lyrics will resonate with a wider audience than their other songs. They certainly did with me. The line “I still pretend you’re only out of sight in another room / Smiling at your phone” made me weep the first time I heard it. Lead singer Joe Newman delivers the lines beautifully. His tender falsetto is the warm honey that lends the heavy lyrics the gentleness they deserve.


The third single completely changes direction from “Get Better.” The playful tune, Hard Drive Gold, tells the tale of a 15-year-old kid who strikes gold with cryptocurrency. With a thick bass line, heavy cowbell, and an organ solo, the song grooves harder than a song about cryptocurrency has the right to.


At only 2 minutes and 38 seconds, I’ll play it on loop both to lengthen my dance session and to catch all the details. The song contains spoken bits from two members’ mothers, with one saying “hot,” and the other saying “scum.” The track also features a cha-ching and an actual horn honk around the line “Neil with the Audi.” (The school choir from “U&ME” also returns for the song.)


The Dream’s fourth and final single, The Actor, depicts the story of an aspiring actor who becomes a drug dealer and gets caught up in John Belushi’s death. The production is reminiscent of the 90s with twinkly keys and vocals that blend into the mix, and yet it would easily fit as an opening track for a movie about Hollywood’s corruption.


Singles aside, alt-J hid more experimental tracks as the deep cuts of the record. From the medieval Bane, to operatic with a tinge of Castlevania Philadelphia, to house music Chicago, to the barbershop quartet opening of Walk a Mile, to surf rock Powders, The Dream surpasses genre.


Aside from “Hard Drive Gold,” which I will be adding to my Dancing Unironically playlist until I eventually wear it out from too many listens, Happier When You’re Gone, “Philadelphia,” and “Powders” stood out the most.


“Happier When You’re Gone” sounds the most like a modern indie rock tune. The references to California and benzos (and the strings during the pre-chorus) make it sound like a typical indie track, but the R&B chorus sung behind the melody during the fifth verse adds a layer of intrigue.


“Philadelphia” may be the oddest song from the record, but its particular brand of oddity is what defines the charm of alt-J. It features a harpsichord (harpsichord!) and the opera singer Christie Valeriano sings the word “Philadelphia” during the chorus. It also possesses a slight Sgt. Pepper vibe, which gives it a nostalgic feel.


The album’s closer “Powders” carried me to an empty beach on a summer night. It describes “the first seconds of teenage love, experienced across the room at a party,” according to the band’s Spotify. The mellow, 60s-like guitar solo permeated my soul and the tale of young love brought a small smile to my face the entire time I listened.


Per the keyboard player’s remark that “something was reborn on The Dream,” I couldn’t agree more. alt-J delivered a diverse album that exceeded my expectations and fulfilled my need for cowbell.

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