An Awesome Wave
Kevin Camp, December 17, 2012
A modern pop music deity couldn’t devise a more prototypical uprising than Alt-J’s. The band began as a bedroom project, like so many other past and present success stories, at Leeds University in 2007. Five years, two name changes, and a record deal later, members Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Gus Unger- Hamilton, and Thom Green have churned out their introductory offering. It’s certainly the typical debut story, although on second glance, the band’s normalcy ends there. For one, the magnitude of Alt-J’s rise is certainly uncommon. An Awesome Wave has enjoyed remarkable chart success in the United Kingdom and across Europe. It even garnered The Mercury Prize, awarded to the year’s best album from the U.K. and Ireland. But perhaps more significantly, Alt-J sets itself apart with the stylistic tendencies inherent in its songs. Rather than conforming to the prevailing trends of pop, the band seems to define itself by its idiosyncrasies. They permeate An Awesome Wave and in fact prove to be its most positive characteristic.
The album’s lyrics are foremost among its quirks. Following a brief instrumental greeting, Newman sees fit to lyrically introduce himself in singularly odd fashion, with “Shit them all festival, laugh at the beautiful.” On “Fitzpleasure,” he briefly tries his hand at nonsensical beat poetry, chanting “treasure, pleasure, leisure, les yeux.” It’s telling that, in spite of its in-your-face strangeness, the track was chosen as the album’s lead single (as part of a dual release alongside “Matilda”). “Fitzpleasure” begins on an even weirder note, but constructively so. As a band, any time you can start one of your earliest singles off with the lyrics “Tralala, in your snatch,” you’ve got to make it happen. The song even inspired one wayward internet soul to create a tumblr dedicated to possible misinterpretations of its lyrics, although I can’t guarantee I’m not the only misguided individual to have stumbled upon it.
An Awesome Wave’s lyrical oddities are enhanced by Newman’s unconventional singing style. When he’s not making use of his distinctive falsetto, his throaty warble approximates The Temper Trap’s Dougy Mandagi. Or rather, it approximates what I imagine Mandagi would sound like under the influence of a heroic amount of mind-altering substances. Newman’s vocals are at their finest on “Interlude 1 (Ripe & Ruin),” where he makes use of clever layering and repetition, and bends notes to great effect. There and throughout the album, the use of obscure lyrics and careful rhythmic delivery blur the line of traditional vocals. Often, his voice is effectively yet another instrument to add to the already impressive amount of overdubbing that pervades the record.
Alt-J’s random, eccentric songwriting style translates into a record that is largely lacking in cohesion. More than is typical of other LPs, songs on An Awesome Wave launch off boldly in completely different directions. A listener could reasonably expect the album’s three interludes to tie the material together, or inject some semblance of uniformity among the songs. However, with each intermission so vastly different from the next, this is far from the truth. The big picture that emerges is one of disjointed confusion. Yet, paradoxically, this is to the album’s credit. The songs explicitly do not mesh together into a cohesive unit, and that’s precisely the point.
Naturally, after listening to an album so heavily characterized by unconventionality and disjointedness, my lasting impression is not one of overall songwriting consistency. Rather, I’m left with a series of standout moments. Many of the songs build to eventual, highly rewarding excerpts: the mandolin melody midway through “Taro,” Newman’s falsetto holding its own, a cappella, on “Ms.” Another exceptional segment occurs partway through “Bloodflood.” A keyboard scale quickly ascends and descends, stylistically inspired by video game midi soundtracks of yore. It specifically evokes some of Nobuo Uematsu’s finer compositions for earlier installments in the Final Fantasy series. Admittedly no more than a fleeting moment within the overall context of the album, it is still a useful case-in-point for the fledgling band’s proficiency in melding a myriad of musical styles into a compelling, if enigmatic, piece of work. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Newman essentially admits the band nitpicked every little detail of the record in hopes of getting things right. From the group’s inception, that process took five years. And it worked.
An Awesome Wave’s high level of success says a lot about the state of music in 2012. There has always been a place for quirky, strange bands. Now, that place appears to be closer to the mainstream. On a personal level, this is a welcome development. Music with strange and foreign elements is often the most compelling to me. My hope is that society’s arcane, sometimes creepy sensibilities are creeping further into its musical tastes. Perhaps Newman sums it up best on “Ms”: “the dark seeks dark.” That he delivers the line in his trademarked layered falsetto is not insignificant.