Review: Alt-J – This Is All Yours

Few would have predicted the success that three Fine Art and one English Lit students from Leeds University would have experienced so early in their music career, but Alt-J have taken everything in their stride.  Three Brit Award nominations, a clutch of album-of-the-year nods across the music press and a coveted Mercury Prize for their platinum-selling debut An Awesome Wave came unexpectedly for the young band. Even more unexpected, perhaps, was the sudden departure of bassist and back-up vocalist Gwil Sainsbury, for whom critical acclaim and touring clearly did not supplant home comforts and family life.

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And so, the remaining three members of Alt-J regrouped; ditching the “∆” from their official moniker, they returned to the studio to record their second effort. The transition from four-piece to trio has been very smooth indeed. In a year where there has been rather a dearth of big album releases, fans have waited for Alt-J’s return with bated breath, and they won’t be disappointed: This Is All Yours is among the year’s best records.

It is abundantly clear from the off that this LP is less distant-cousin and more younger-brother to their debut: one look at the track listing tells you it bears a similar structure, with another “Intro” track, an instrumental interlude and even a sequel to Wave’s “Bloodflood”. Sonically, it’s not a huge departure from Wave: still distinctively Alt-J. But at the same time,  it’s an instantly more pensive and spacious record than their first. “Intro” enticingly set the tone for what turns out to be a more sedate and mature record overall, and although it does not quite match the brilliance of Wave’s opening salvo of “Intro” and “Interlude I”, immediately noticeable are the chorister-like harmonies that worked so surprisingly well on their first record.

“Arrival in Nara” evokes the Maccabees but is slow to get going, and given the band’s commercial ambitions in America, one might question whether they could have put something like “Left Hand Free”, the album’s most accessible song, higher up the track listing to kick-start proceedings. But that is hardly a complaint and more an observation.

Third track “Nara”, in stark contrast, is beautifully subtle, with Joe Newman’s delicate vocals backed by a glistening xylophone-like tinkle. Next up, recent single “Every Other Freckle” is the most satisfying track on the album, showcasing all the trio’s best qualities in one three-and-a-half-minute stomper. Much has been made of the odd-ball lyrics (“Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”), but Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton’s glorious vocal partnership, Thom Green’s characteristically nuanced drumming and a thrilling synth breakdown make it one of the best tracks of the year.

As mentioned, the blues-esque “Left Hand Free” is the song casual listeners will return to first, containing the snarling minor-key bass-lines and tempo changes of Wave’s “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure”, if not perhaps their originality and star-quality.

First promotional single “Hunger of the Pine” made headlines for its audacious sampling of Miley Cyrus track “4×4”, and it remains an album standout here. Another highlight is the Ridley Scott-inspired “Gospel of John Hurt”, with its baroque chanting earmarking itself as a future crowd favourite. The two excellent more acoustic tracks “Warm Foothills” and “Pusher” continue to paint the album’s sparse sonic landscapes. “Bloodflood pt. II” builds on the melodies of its forebear superbly, before “Leaving Nara” draws proceedings to a close.

I had the pleasure of meeting drummer Thom Green backstage after a gig in Newcastle last year. The casually confident way in which he shared photographs, cigarettes and anecdotes with fans encapsulates the aplomb with which Alt-J have embraced their spell in the limelight. Long may it continue.