The music video of alt-J’s U&ME pullulates with visuals of skateboarding, explosions, and the spitting of blood. Such divergent imagery defines the alt-J way; a reef-deep bag of tricks, never knowing what’s coming next, like a randomised jukebox containing wild indietronica, modern rock appeasements, and woodsy, folksy, Bon Iver-y tidings.
While The Dream itself deviates heavily from alt-J’s harmonious, now-decade-old debut An Awesome Wave, U&ME doesn’t excavate from either plot, opting for a no-bones catchy single, irregular by the band’s standards as they surf through Dani California style melodies and a crackling percussion that frees itself from the obstructive grip that smothers much of album #4.
The Dream stiffens itself up to favour the written word, immersed in worlds of true crime, personability, and customary storytelling. It begins with a city-dweller’s answer to tribalism, chanted in arthritic baritone over Bane. The chants shift into whispers and Coca Cola advertisements too deadpan to disclose irony. They later boomerang to suit the one word every three seconds of Walk a Mile.
Amid condensed production and drums rejected by Massive Attack resides an urge to return to an eclectic past. The familiar, northern town damp of The Actor may tease a short reach, but alt-J still have the desire to explore; lullabies, organs and violins wink through Happier When You’re Gone, while Philadelphia goes full baroque – that harpsichord lets you know if alt-J still care about authenticity.
While Powders may pounce like a tortoise, some of the album’s footnotes do appear animated. The group shouts of FIRE that emanate on Hard Drive Gold provide adrenaline, as does the song’s theatrical “don’t be afraid to make money” refrain, and Get Better chronicles a never-settled mindset, one that provides a pleasant Fleet Foxes impression, as acoustic guitar passages swarm like friendly wildlife.
But an extensive look into that famous bag of tricks feels like a thing of the past. A series of bollards and blockades restrains the liberal ambitions that dwell within The Dream, the expressions of which are drawn-on and seldom-seen. alt-J’s fourth isn’t without its highlights, its moments that caffeinate and revive, but much of its ideology is obstructed by frustrating production and frequent removals of enthusiasm.