It’s clear that Alt-J paid no attention to such disparaging early feedback as NME’s (frankly lazy) review of ‘Matilda’, which dismissed the laid-back and intricately crafted track as “Live Lounge-sessioncore fronted by a duck on Rohypnol”. It’s clear because ‘An Awesome wave’ not only contains an unchanged and equally brilliant version of the unfairly critiqued song, but also because the finished album received almost universal critical acclaim. Awards shortly followed. Facing up against a crowded shortlist, the quartet elatedly picked up the Mercury Prize this November, placing them in the same prestige as previous award-winners The xx and Arctic Monkeys, and ending their year in the triumph that their debut deserved.
It is not enough to simply judge the album on merit of its success; it’s a great work of art in its own right. ‘Intro’ draws the listener in slowly with a melancholic piano and the low background plucking of guitar strings, and tension builds, until the album is kicked off as Joe Newman’s distinctive vocals wail over deep-bass tones. The rest of the album continues in an equally gripping fashion: Gwil Sainsbury’s ear-worm guitar riffs, Gus Unger Hamilton’s keyboard harmonics, and Thom Green’s rhythmic beats create a danceable pop sound that fades in and out of quieter moments of reflective folk. Overlaying this, Newman’s poignant wordplay poeticises the songs’ movements. Much has been made of literary and film references in the album’s lyrics, and many of the songs do portray a narrative (if you can hear words amongst the murmured annunciation), but most significantly the lead vocalist sounds class. He is supported in vocal harmonies by his fellow band members, which are most prominent and impressive in ‘Interlude I’, and run through the album as a repeated motif. Some of the lyrics may not be great, such as the somewhat cringey declaim that “Triangles are my favourite shape” which is matched by the band seemingly trying to jump on the triangle-obsessed-hipster-bandwagon by naming their band Alt-J (translated by Mac keyboards as: ∆), but the debut work of this quartet is outstanding. ‘Breezeblocks’. ‘Something Good’, ‘Fitzpleasure’, and ‘Taro’ are exceptional tracks and highlights of the album, most aptly summing up the band’s undeniable originality and talent, and the popular excitement for their future.
In a year overcrowded by new and old talent, ‘An Awesome Wave’ is a sweepingly powerful gesture of Alt-J’s genius, and easily a big contender for the album of 2012. Personally, the band’s addictive riffs and joint harmonies (“Please don’t go, I love you so”) have been bringing me back all year.
Words: Rich Jinks