It is difficult to mildly praise a British band. Either they don’t command much public attention, or they are the saviors of their genre and poised to cross the Atlantic and take over—quick, tell Paul Revere. The Beatles set a precedent for hysteria over admiration. It was the Beatles and the Stones, and then Oasis and the Stone Roses, and then the Arctic Monkeys—these boyish men in the right jeans with the right sound. Oh, and Radiohead, though the frenzy they created was a bit more...reasonable, somehow. It was tempered with thoughtfulness.
Alt-J is a British band. Four boyish men from Cambridge who met at the University of Leeds. Though they formed in 2007, they have one full-length album to their name—An Awesome Wave, which was released several months ago in the U.K. and gets its official stateside release just now. An Awesome Wave is an incredible album, but calling it incredible is another way of adding to its considerable hype. Bookies at an online gambling firm called Alt-J “the next Radiohead.” How can you praise a British band’s excellent debut without worrying that the media attention will stoke the flames of their flameout?
An Awesome Wave is a folk album, an electronic album, an album full of allusions and no illusions. It is quiet when you expect it to be loud and loud when you expect it to be quiet. It has lyrics about sex, weed and matadors. Songs burn slowly or else keep a consistent, mathematical beat. Like Radiohead, Alt-J are good at folding electronic elements into rock songs. Unlike Radiohead, Alt-J are a young band at the beginning of their career, and the possibilities seem limitless at this point.
When you type Alt-J on a keyboard, you get a delta symbol. Alt-J are concerned with the geometry of things. “Triangles are my favorite shape,” lead vocalist Joe Newman sings on “Tessellate,” which is a sexy song that uses the word “tessellate” as an amorous verb. Their geometry isn’t only lyrical; each song on the album seems to correlate to a specific equation, or an ascribed set of angles and sides, and yet that kind of rigid adherence to shapes doesn’t feel stilted or stuffy. The soft snare hits and fingerpicking of “Something Good,” the interlocking synths of “Dissolve Me,” the ancient-sounding harmonies on “Ripe & Ruin,” even the short acoustic interludes that could have been throwaways: it all is so meticulous, but it isn’t cold.
The warmth in Alt-J’s precision comes from a few sources. One is the unique yowl of Newman’s voice. He’s got excellent range, swooping up for falsetto coos and then back into the baritone range. No affectation, no posturing. He manages the quirkiness of his vocal cords in the same way as Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold or Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste: by being sincere. The sincerity of Alt-J’s songwriting shines through, too. Stream An Awesome Wave on Soundcloud and you’ll find a written précis—seemingly penned by the band members themselves—at the beginning of each track. “Something Good” is “is a song that “documents the death of a matador.” The heartwrenching ballad “Matilda” is based on the movie The Professional, and “Breezeblocks” references Where The Wild Things Are. Closing track “Fitzpleasure,” propelled by a Trent-Reznor-smooth bass pulse, takes its “Tra-la-las” from a chapter in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Are excessive references better when they’re in absolute earnest? In this case, it seems like it.
That kind of transparency sets Alt-J apart from the mega-bands to which they’ve been compared. Radiohead have always been obtuse about their intentions for songs—a band that picks lyrics out of a hat (as they did for Kid A) would never sum up their lyrics in short descriptions and share them with their listeners. An Awesome Wave puts it all up front. You can see every angle and every side of the shape they’ve made. And the unimpeachable logic of each song, added to their odd tunefulness of the songs, makes them exciting to listen to.
An exciting album will cause a frenzy. Alt-J have been nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize, and it won’t stop there. Thank goodness they make music can inspire careful analysis and racing pulses in equal measure.