They say that all children have an incredible capacity for creativity before the age of three, as well as an incredible cognitive predisposition for art, and all of this gets lost as you get older and there is nothing you can do about it unless you're a robot or you grow up in a different society. Or maybe they don't say that, maybe Im making it up or distorting some factoid I heard out of a PhD-toting friend, or something. My point is, Alt-J sounds like a bunch of guys who never grew out of that incredible, youthful, creative freedom. Their music is terribly odd, but somehow it feels right, and instantly accessible. Lead singer Joe Newman wields his voice like it's an elastic string, bending and hammering on, feeling no obligation to pronounce any of the brilliant lyrics clearly. It's nega-pop, music that's so catchy it freaks you out.
An Awesome Wave is an album that invites you into the minds of its makers, and challenges you to keep up.
The band has stated their intention was to create a body of work, not just a collection of mismatched songs. In this they are wildly successful. The various "Interlude" tracks are just as important as the main songs to understanding the ebb and flow of An Awesome Wave. "Interlude 1" (often used as the intro to "Tessellate" in live performance) is particularly captivating -- a futuristic robot take on medieval English church hymns, which drops us into the dangerously rhythmic single. Most bands can't even write songs as complicated as these interludes, and Alt-J is just getting started -- "Tessellate" is only the first tentpole of the album. It impacts while twisting and probing the ear with every sensory disconnect imaginable while maintaining a melody -- jittery piano, syncopated drums, running guitar and bass in opposing motion. Its like watching the insides of a beautiful timepiece.
"Breezeblocks" defies categorization, too. Mixing flighty guitar work with a rotating vocal line counterpoint, it's like a love song for someone who's never experienced emotion before. "Estocada" continues the meticulous reconstruction of sound, taking elements from art-rock, Radiohead, radio-friendly melodies, and adding different punctuation and accessories. Rinse and repeat, the band creates almost an hour of aural exploration unlike anything ever heard and instantly familiar all at once. It's all very intriguing. Nearly everything on this album qualifies for further investigation, like a pulp mystery written in cryptic code, that reads like a romance novel on the surface.
I mean, have you ever heard a song like "Fitzpleasure?" Shit like this always feels like the listener is being tricked, but Alt-J is a band that follows their own path, and it never feels forced or odd for the sake of being odd. That's why it consistently works.
It's hard to pinpoint a favorite aspect of the oddities, but the tightness of the vocal arrangements really strike me the most. Alt-J seems to understand that the human voice is simultaneously the most versatile and underused musical instrument available, and in a world full of instrumental exploration both acoustic and electric, the voice still affords an opportunity to make something new. On An Awesome Wave, they capitalize on this theory in a big way. Which is why it's perhaps the most uniquely new music to be released this year.