For their fourth LP, alt-J have been frank in respect of its overarching themes, as ‘The Dream’ hinges on traumatic circumstances and instances experienced by the collective. When speaking to The Guardian, vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman stated “we experience a lot of harrowing things in our lives. They build up and you write about them in time, and you come up with ideas that fit those emotions and you put them together.”
The record is littered with extraordinary events, such as the recollection of a murdered friend’s sister, a partner who’s driven to kill her abusive spouse, the stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic, and a subsequent loss of a loved one and an imagining of John Belushi’s drug-related death at Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont Hotel in the early 80s. As a vehicle for these disturbing subjects, the LP is alt-J’s most paired-back to date. The Leeds-formed outfit have always walked a fine line between minimalist and anthemic, with certain tracks from their previous releases transforming into certified bangers in the live arena. ‘The Dream’, on the contrary, is the antithesis of anything bombastic, trading in intimacy rather than anything rabblerousing.
Weirdly for a record that’s built upon a macabre narrative ‘The Dream’ commences with ‘Bane’, a song indebted to a love of Coca-Cola! Tethered to a shadowy twang and a disembodied monk-like chant of “I sold my soul”, the album’s opener trades in atmospheric shifts and a slow, expanding crescendo. ‘U&ME’, again, swerves away from anything distressing, opting for a sepia-tinged stroll through sun bleached nostalgia. “Summer holiday/having fun” coos Newman, while a carefree breeze wafts through its staccato, varied textures. It isn’t until ‘Happier When You’re Gone’ materialises that things take a darker turn; this is the moment on ‘The Dream’ that documents a woman killing her partner, then burning the body. Choral vocals, rich strings and a taut guitar line are anchored by Thom Sonny Green’s robust drumming, while a certified relief is conveyed by the song’s title being repeated over and over again. As far as emotion goes, ‘Get Better’ is brutal; with a tenderness orchestrated by a barebones arrangement of acoustic guitar strums and Newman’s croaked falsetto. Joe plays the narrator, detailing a loving relationship, while paying tribute to the NHS’ continued brilliance in the face of Covid-19 “I’ll start the day with tiramisu/raise a spoon to frontline workers/an underfunded principle/they risk all to be there for us”. Littered with affectionate tributes to their past, Newman punctuates evocative glances back with bleaker moments of the present “happy birthday/stuff smuggled in a card I made/it rests under your pillow/when out of ICU/you’ll cringe at all the ‘I love you’s”. The real gut punch comes in the form of “I still pretend you’re only out of sight/in another room/smiling at your phone”, as you realise one half of this couple has had their life cut criminally short by Covid.
The final moments are articulated by a recurring voice memo of a female voice saying “get better”, with Newman solemnly replying “I know I will”. ‘Losing My Mind’ is where ‘The Dream’ becomes shrouded in darkness, and the moment where Newman details the murder of a friend’s sister. Aurally it’s akin to a storm cloud scorching an azure sky and understandably so, given the song’s harrowing and sensitive nature. While not as stark, ‘Walk a Mile’ follows a similar vein, with a barbershop-esque vocal harmony and a hazy, dramatic nuance, Newman slurs “yes my baby’s walked a mile in my shoes” as a way of reacting to how it’s always women that feel unsafe on the streets, rather than men. This song further illustrates the need for education when it comes to stopping assaults on women – its men that need to own this change.
‘The Dream’ isn’t always an easy listen and it’s largely bereft of the catchiness from their previous records. However, it’s an album that’s rich in narrative, emotion and a body of work not afraid to tackle some uncomfortable themes.
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