Revisiting one of the finest debut albums out there
It would be fair to say that Alt-J have established a name for themselves on the basis of their quirkiness. Indeed, back in their early days, they were quick to go against the promotional mechanisms favoured by record labels across the land. From their name, a command used on Macs, which initially made searching the band online a nightmare, to their refusal to reveal their faces in photographs, their rise to critical acclaim was all very devious. Nonetheless, combined with their nonsense lyrics (‘Triangles are my favourite shape’), cutting edge sound and outright eccentricity, Alt-J’s debut, An Awesome Wave, cemented their status as indie icons, catapulting them from University of Leeds graduates to Mercury Music Prize winners.
Where other artists may be inclined to play it safe when making their debut, Alt-J were sure to put all of their cards on the table from the get-go. The album is full of twists and turns, causing the album to break genre conventions, with the simultaneous blurring and clashing of songs, instruments and themes giving the LP a fresh and endearing quality. If the percussion heavy ‘Dissolve Me’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’ represent the band’s most razor sharp and precise moments, ‘Ms’ and ‘Matilda’ represent their softer side. The latter’s comforting guitar chords are more akin to a lullaby than the glitchy vibe formed by the distorted synthesisers in the former two songs, a conflict in vision that impresses rather than disrupts.
Likewise, the songs themselves are also full of this sense of journeying. Take ‘Tessellate’, for instance. Its soft piano introduction lulls you into a sense of tranquillity before a heavy electronic beat kicks in, creating a contrasting sound full of body and vigour. However, it is ‘Breezeblocks’ that arguably best embodies what Alt-J are all about, with it being no surprise that it was picked up and championed by Radio 1. Beginning with Joe Newman’s lone infamous nasal vocals, the song then rips into a series of layered harmonies which serve to add intensity and change the riff of the song completely. As the chant like refrain ‘Please don’t go / please don’t go / I love you so / I love you so’, carries the second half of the song to its climatic ending, this is the album’s most anthemic tune and one which demands to be sung back by their live audiences.
‘Taro’, in addition to the hidden track ‘Hand-made’, offers the perfect closure to the LP. Featuring a notable guitar twang throughout, which is created by taping down the strings, and Bollywood infused vocals, ‘Taro’ is full of buoyancy and Middle Eastern connotations. If listeners weren’t impressed by the band’s broad influences by this point, then this is the ultimate showstopper.
Despite the eclectic nature of the album, the different sounds and genres covered are methodically intertwined, like chapters in a book. Alt-J’s use of the interludes ‘Intro’, ‘(Guitar)’ and ‘(Piano)’ give An Awesome Wave a distinct beginning, middle and end, a formula which allows listeners to take in the different shapes of the album. Although people have likened their sound to ‘folkstep’, I disagree and argue that this term isn’t expansive enough. With influences from electronica, folk, rock and jazz, the real beauty of the album lies in its refusal to submit to the conventions, both sonically and lyrically, that are the hallmarks of albums of a similar ilk.
Words by Lucy Robinson