2012’s An Awesome Wave caught the attention of both listeners and critics in the UK; not just with its catchy hooks and compact songwriting, but also its quaint textures and quirky mannerisms. There has always been an element of gimmickry with alt-J, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if you were to remove the quirks — the clicks, snaps and buzzes — and observe the band at their most bare and skeletal. As it turns out, not much happens at all.
Relaxer strips alt-J of all their guiles and gizmos, to reveal a remarkably boring brand of folk-rock. It starts off well enough. “3WW” is a patient opener that certainly sets a tone, and “In Cold Blood” catches alt-J at the height of their pop power, recalling the band’s early days with a driving groove and a swarm of catchy hooks. It stands as the best song on the album, beyond question, yet doesn’t rank among the best moments on An Awesome Wave. Immediately after, listeners are treated to a drab version of “House of the Rising Sun”, followed by a terrible fuck-song with an equally rotten title of “Hit Me Like That Snare”. It is, by far, the worst song alt-J have ever recorded. It’s like Good News-era Modest Mouse, without any of the humour.
The album takes things easy from there, taking no risks, proceeding to end on a lull. “Adeline” is a decent slow-burner that at least reaches for a dazzling climax, but the last two songs lack any sort of purpose whatsoever. If alt-J aren’t fixed on embracing their quirks, they clearly have nothing interesting to say. Branding An Awesome Wave a ‘fluke’ probably doesn’t do it justice, but its long-term substance is coming into question only five years later. Relaxer exposes alt-J at their naked, trifling form, unmasking them as a deeply limited band. Despite a couple of solid moments, it will go down as a severe downer in a discography that is becoming alarmingly insubstantial.
5 out of 10
Relaxer falls together for spells, but for the most part the music sounds drunk. The general impression it leaves is inelegant and sloppy. I don’t understand what Relaxer is for or what it’s trying to do or say.
There are redeeming qualities, sure. “In Cold Blood” is good. Not terribly substantive, but big and impressive. The second half of “Last Year” is nice. The final track builds up to a pleasant harmonic din. Beyond that I zone out fairly heavily. I wish I had the goodwill necessary to indulge alt-J and speculate on what they are trying to do, but I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m so bored of listening to new releases that seem to think being a mess is interesting. It isn’t. Each one is just another goddam ‘character’ with loud manners and empty heads. Jesus Lord spare me.
Still, listen once. Relaxer deserves marginally better than what I’m writing. It has substance enough — fleeting and frustrating as it may be — to provide some people somewhere some pleasure. Best of luck to them.
6 out of 10
"Relaxer is such a stark contrast to alt-J’s previous output, it begs the question: what happened here? It’s clear the band wanted to veer towards something poignant for their ‘difficult third album’, as only “In Cold Blood” has all the hallmarks of their previous work. A cover of “House of the Rising Sun”, branded ‘easy-going’ by some, comes across as drab and dull; I’m waiting for it to get going for the full five minutes. “Adeline” follows a similar theme later in the tracklist. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is probably the worst offender on the album: initially promising a lift in pace, the band described it as ‘spicy’, but it feels like the band trying to be edgy without any success.
The final third of the album focuses on more virtuosic, orchestrally backed arrangements, each spanning six minutes a piece. These are by no means bad, and there’s a certain atmosphere in places, particularly midway through the closer, “Pleader”, where chords and melodies purposely clash and tumble while building to a folky, choral arrangement, albeit with an abrupt and unsatisfying end. Sadly, by this point, I found it hard not to switch off, as what had proceeded it just didn’t give me anything to remain interested. The most engaging tracks for me were those that featured Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, adding a fun dynamic and maintaining an atmosphere that is otherwise bereft across the rest of the tracklist.
I’m upset that I don’t feel much more about Relaxer. It has some highlights that are undermined by truly unaffecting moments and, given their enthralling debut, it’s surprising to see such a change."
5 out of 10