How alt-J created a sonic landscape with ‘The Dream’

A track-by-track exploration into The Dream, alt-J’s new sound, and how they have sculpted a sonic landscape from tales of true crime.

How alt-J created a sonic landscape with ‘The Dream’

Last week saw the release of alt-J’s fourth studio album ‘The Dream’.

The album arrived with much anticipation and camaraderie, with the band hosting an intricately-weaved treasure hunt on their Instagram stories. Following the release of four singles, the clues lead to exclusive filters and GIFs, before the final clue on Thursday saw fans scrambling for close to two hours to crack a code. Many in the community worked together via Discord and Reddit to solve a riddle, delving into the depths of the alt-J archive to work out the code, and then it all came to a head when the band posted the beginning half of a link. The first person to access the link and complete it with the code received exclusive access to a livestream, with the option to share it with other fans or keep it entirely private. There were also 10 runners-up, winning T-shirts that read “I didn’t win the alt-J Dream Quest”. 

The livestream began at 8pm, a matter of hours before the album would hit our streaming platforms, and saw the debut of 5 brand new tracks from the album, alongside 3 of the new singles, and 3 classic fan favourites. As the stream played, there were around 150 fans in excited attendance, chatting eagerly in the comments and sharing their thoughts on the new songs. Since then, the video has accumulated around 1,300 views.

The Dream is the first studio album the band have released since their 2017 Mercury Prize nominated LP Relaxer, and features 12 tracks. It’s an incredibly cohesive album, ebbing and flowing between a laid-back upbeat sound and lullaby-esque tracks. Produced by Charlie Andrew, who has worked closely with the band for years, the mixing on this album is truly something special, and I highly recommend listening with some good quality headphones. 

Staying true to their unusual approach to songwriting, the record deals with some truly unique topics. From the death of John Belushi as told in groovy fashion The Actor, to grieving the loss of a significant other throughout the pandemic in Get Better, to poking fun at cryptocurrency trends in Hard Drive Gold, the trio really have got everything covered. So much so, in fact, that writing a review would only feel right on a track-by-track basis.

Bane

alt-J have never failed to provide an incredible album opener, and Bane is absolutely no exception to this. The album opens with an ethereal, celtic and atmospheric instrumental that builds and erupts into the sound of choir, before slowly descending into a distorted and wavering vocal that mimics rippling water. The cascading lyric ‘in the middle of the night I get a craving and I wake up for you’ is easily one of the album’s highlights for me. Frontman Joe Newman reminisces on memories of childhood, swimming, and drinking cola, as a dramatic chorus interrupts and changes the pace of the song into a stormier, more climactic composition. It’s at this point that drummer Thom Sonny Green is introduced on the record, sporting a beat that wouldn’t be out of place on Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory.

U&ME

As the leading single from the album, U&ME is a laid-back, summery track that details a love story, taking place at a day festival, that slowly descends into the madness of a drug-induced trip. The clean guitar lines and simple drum beat make the song a very easy listen, perhaps being the reason that the track was chosen as the lead single – it’s a good reminder of everything that alt-J are, only stripped back of the usual intricacies, to say to the world “we’re back” after such a long time. 

Hard Drive Gold

It wouldn’t be an alt-J album without one tongue-in-cheek track, would it? Hard Drive Gold provides exactly that. This track is to The Dream what Left Hand Free is to their second album, the song is upbeat and fun, and definitely does not take itself too seriously. The random emphasis on words such as “scum”, “fire” and the onomatopoeic “brrrr” to mimic the sound of a non-shatter ruler against a table (we all did it, you know exactly what they’re talking about) really draw on their ability to write songs without too much weight to them. It pokes fun at the trends of trading cryptocurrency, and makes you want to dance in the process.

Happier When You’re Gone

In this melodic, gentle song, Newman tells the story of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ from the perspective of a flipped narrative. Winding in personal anecdotal references and incorporating a bassline from an earlier song that never came to fruition, the peaceful sound of this track compliments the imagery of the lyrics perfectly. The small details in the background of this song are lovely, with a descending droning sound paired with alternating notes from keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton giving the song a much more bodied feeling.

The Actor

It’s not uncommon for alt-J to abstractly cover history and tragedy in the content of their songs, and The Actor does just thatl. Linking back to the album’s title, the song addresses flaws of the American Dream, and retells an imagined version of John Belushi’s death due to a cocaine overdose. Sonically, the song strikes a good balance between being energetic and laid-back, with Newman’s vocals taking the forefront and sporting a more typical, familiar mumbled tone than some of the other vocals on the record. 

Get Better

Get Better is the track guaranteed to get the tears rolling as Newman gracefully yet mournfully details the things he misses about his partner following a loss during the pandemic. Though fictitious, the story has a way of winding itself around your heart, and as beautiful as it is, it’s not the easiest listen. The vocals are really pushed to the forefront of the track, against strums of a gentle acoustic guitar, creating an intimate setting for the tragic narrative to be told.

Chicago

The first minute of this track lures you into a false sense of security with a tame and soft opening, accompanied by the soft notes of a synthesiser, before a haunting riff gradually creeps up on you to soon be joined by a totally unique beat. This song has all the structure you would expect from an alt-J song, but in a totally different way. The haunting harmonies and melodic piano are not out of place, but the high concentration of the bass drum would make the song at home on a remix album. I really appreciate how moody the song grows to be, and would be great live – perhaps even with an extended outro.

Philadelphia

A song that feels like a dramatic oil painting of a stormy landscape, akin to gothic literature, Philadelphia has proven a favourite amongst fans. Drawing on his affinity with true crime, Newman wrote this song from the perspective of a victim succumbing to death in an alleyway as the perpetrator flees the scene. The dramatic composition sees the addition of bass violin and suspenseful string arrangements, which when paired with the operatic vocals throughout, create a deep tension and sense of unease in the most satisfying way. The song crescendos like a wave breaking against a cliff, and I can only imagine how immense it will be in a live setting. 

Walk A Mile

It’s safe to say that I didn’t expect a barbershop quartet to feature on the album, but I also can’t say I’m surprised. Previously, Unger-Hamilton has hailed upon old church choirs and the likes to feature on alt-J tracks, so hearing that he called up his old barbershop boys to record a little something is entirely characteristic. Though the lyrics are simple, the song plays with some nice rhythms and subtle strings, altering the melody to which the lyrics are performed. It creates an interesting dynamic that evolves as the song progresses, and is a good way to cool off after the drama of Philadelphia.

Delta

It’s nice to see alt-J return to their a capella roots, almost mirroring an interlude track from their debut album, An Awesome Wave. A short but sweet song clocking in at exactly one minute, the buttery harmonies force you to stop and pay attention, immersing yourself in what the rest of the album has to offer.

Losing My Mind

Newman describes this song as “one of the most overt and unapologetic comments on the really dark side of the human condition” (via Apple Music), however the delicacy of the track would make you think otherwise. The drumming on this track really stands out as the song builds and builds, steadily gaining depth before coming to an abrupt ending. Again with the  beautiful harmonies, Unger-Hamilton and Newman can almost enchant you into a state of euphoria as an organ kicks in, highlighting the poignancy of the lyrics.

Powders

Steering away from some of the dark themes across the album, Powders ends the album on a really sweet and positive note that will stay with you long after the music draws to a halt. In a story of two teenagers falling in love, stripped back instrumentals blend together to create a sense of warmth and safety. It’s not often a drummer’s vocals will make it onto an album, but for the closing track, Green’s vocals made their debut. In a soft spoken word, we hear the inner monologue of the character as a transaction takes place in a supermarket. It’s difficult not to feel relaxed and uplifted, as this track is nostalgic of happy memories that everyone will be able to relate to in some way. It’s a really nice way to wrap up the album, and as I listened, I was overwhelmed with love and gratitude for the music that The Dream had provided.

Overall, The Dream is an absolute contender to be the best album of 2022. The album marked a return to the familiar without being at all repetitive or dull - the cohesion between all the tracks created a storyline that climaxed and resolved as the album progressed. The band have a real talent at collaborating with one another to pool ideas and create masterpieces, and then pulling them together to create an album that spans a whole range of influences, whether it be literature, history, pop culture, or tragedy; this is what makes alt-J so unique, interesting, and unlike any other band around at the moment.

After being slightly undercut with only eight tracks on Relaxer, I think this album is real proof that alt-J are back, and they are back with vigour. I will forever be grateful for alt-J, and for the friends and the experiences that their music has brought me over the decade of loving them, but it really is comforting to know that there are certainly some very exciting times ahead.

Next week, they are to embark on a two-month long North American tour with Portugal. The Man, and they have a UK tour that kicks off in May. alt-J are a band best consumed live, with award-winning light shows and a unique setup, so I implore you to get yourself to one of their shows. 

Thank you, Joe, Gus, and Thom, and to everybody else involved, for an album worth shouting about.

Header Image Credit: credit: alt-J, artwork by Joel Wyllie.

Author

Lucy Evans

Lucy Evans Kickstart

Media Sub-editor at Voice. Sign language enthusiast, frequent gig attendee, cloud enjoyer, artist, and volcano lover. I love bees.

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