Album Review: Alt-J’s “The Dream”

The alternative indie band’s fourth studio album is unsurprisingly full of surprises

Alt-J is far from being a new band on the block: in fact, their 2012 debut album “An Awesome Wave” won the British Mercury Prize, and their 2014 album “This Is All Yours” was nominated for a Grammy award. An English indie rock band, Alt-J was formed in Leeds in 2007 by Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Thom Sonny Green (drums), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Gwilym Sainsbury (guitar/bass). However, the group is currently playing as a trio after Sainsbury left the band in early 2014.

The name of the band originates from the keyboard sequence used to generate the delta symbol “∆” on an Apple computer. The band makes occasional references to triangles in their songs as well: for example, the lyric “triangles are my favorite shape” in the song “Tessellate,” included on the album “An Awesome Wave.” For me, triangles symbolize power and structure — however, the structure is not necessarily what my mind jumps to when I think of describing Alt-J because their music is such a powerfully experimental force.

The band’s newest album, “The Dream,” was announced on Sept. 22, 2021, with the release of the single “U&ME,” the second track on the album, which was used to promote the eventual release of the entire 12-track album on Feb. 11, 2022.

According to their bio on Spotify, “what emerged was a record of intrigue and ambiguity that fizzes with a rejuvenated sense of experimentalism. ‘The Dream’ is the sound of a band experimenting more than they ever have, recharged and reinvigorated — the twelve tracks make for the fullest sounding Alt-J record yet.”

Overall, Alt-J’s sound is difficult to define because they are constantly trying new things in order to avoid stylistic categorization and staleness. What I like about Alt-J’s music, and this new album specifically, is that it constantly keeps you guessing. Even after the first listen, each listen thereafter has something new or fresh to offer. In this way, “The Dream” is the album that keeps on giving.

The thematic threads that I picked up in “The Dream” were those of vice, desperation, addiction, indulgence and the feeling of falling apart. Considering these overall themes, it makes sense that the album was recorded in the middle of the pandemic, from August 2020 until June 2021, with long-time producer Charlie Andrew.

Kicking off the album is the dramatic, over five-minute-long opener, “Bane.” For about the first two minutes of the song, the sound is reminiscent of a sea shanty (yes, you read that right). This part of the song totally caught me off-guard the first time I listened to it, but try not to let the sea shanty vibes put you off of listening to the rest of the album. The lyrics are reminiscent of childhood and soda cravings when Newman sings, “I’ll dive in / Swimming and drinking / And when my parents tell me to come in / I’ll just ignore them and keep on drinking / Cola, cola / Fizzy cola.”
The second track on the album is the previously mentioned “U&ME,” which has a catchy chorus and lyrics about a summertime love. The chorus “It’s just you and me now” is easy to get stuck in your head, with a rhythm that almost mimics the unfamiliar energy of new love.

Next up is “Hard Drive Gold,” a tongue-in-cheek commentary on greed, followed by “Happier When You’re Gone,” one of the album’s deep cuts that truly is a rare gem and shouldn’t be overlooked. The song’s brutally honest lyrics, “It’s not easy, it’s not easy / Homelessness at home / My life is bracing for your hug / You pass me to unplug your phone,” are paired with a poignant guitar layer.

My personal favorite song on the album is the funky layered synth-pop track titled “The Actor.” This song may be the one that delves into the darkest content lyrically, as it is about an actor who is trying to gain success while struggling with cocaine addiction. The lyrics “Why do I keep on returning to you?” fit in well with the overall theme of the album and are relatable to anyone who practices any self-destructive behaviors they can’t seem to kick.

The last track worth mentioning on the album is “Philadelphia.” This is by far the most out-there-sounding song on the album and, to be completely honest, I am still not entirely sure how I feel about it — I don’t hate it, but I definitely don’t love it. “Philadelphia” is one of those songs that is subject to my skipping unless I’m in the mood to be auditorily confused.

“Philadelphia” combines opera and harpsichord sounds with beat drops that mostly work to make me laugh. There are definitely some parts of the song that I really love and the harpsichord seals the deal, but then there are other parts where there is a little too much harpsichord and opera for my personal taste. That being said, I commend Alt-J’s bravery to experiment with unusual sounds that we don’t often hear in popular music today.

Overall, I would recommend Alt-J’s “The Dream” album to anyone interested in expanding their listening horizons. Just remember to come at it with an open mind.