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Album Review: Alt-J – ‘The Dream’

15 February 2022 | 6:20 pm | Guido Farnell

“This collection of songs feels like a dream.”

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Almost ten years ago alt-J claimed the Mercury Prize for their debut album, An Awesome Wave, instantly winning fans the world over. Since then, they’ve effortlessly walked the line that separates indie cool and commercial appeal by applying a slick sound to their somewhat experimental approach to music. It’s an approach that has somehow found appeal with both camps. 

The Dream finds alt-J largely working the same approach but, probably because they are older, there’s a more wistful vibe about this album. The Dream opens with Bane, an effervescent ode to cola addiction that almost feels like a love song that doesn’t care too much about whether diet or regular is your choice of poison. The song blurs time, sliding from childhood memory to sleepless 4am cravings to create a strangely dazed and surreal atmosphere. 

The vibe continues with the upbeat U&ME, which throws together amusing random thoughts like “happiness is between two buns” or “strut like Stellan Skarsgard to and from the bar” before sinking into nostalgia for the past and memories they are unwilling to let go of. Thankfully, those memories are of moments of blissed out happiness

The Dream bristles with references to the here and now, from the cocky crypto billionaires on Hard Drive Gold to the heartbreak of COVID on the acoustic centrepiece Get Better. The expansive scope of this album provides an immersive snapshot of these modern times.  

As The Dream proceeds, alt-J flex their musical muscles melting everything from afrobeat to jazz, soulful blues and chamber pop into arrangements that craft leftfield pop hooks from the unpredictable styles and sounds. The shrieking soprano on Philadelphia is an amusing touch on a tune which dives into stately string arrangements. 

Happier When You’re Gone subtly seems like break-up song but more carefully listening suggests a creepy murder plot. The pace slackens during the second half of the album with Walk A Mile woozily drifting on a spaced out bluesy groove. It seamlessly blurs into the hymnal tones of Delta. There is a certain dream voluptuousness to these tunes which seduces listeners with their charm and style. 

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The album’s finale, Powders, exemplifies this approach with an easy rolling drum groove and scattered piano chords providing a simple background for the quiet reflectiveness of Joe Newman’s meandering but sweetly romantic vocals. 

This collection of songs feels like a dream as it delivers subtly complex tunes of love and memory.