alt-J, the Leeds University quartet that is this year’s overwhelming favorite to win the Mercury Prize, have managed to garner lavish praise on both sides of the Atlantic for their debut record, An Awesome Wave. Their idiosyncratic sound, cryptically referential lyrics and striking videos have even sparked discussion of them being “the next Radiohead,” which, while not uncharacteristic of music magazines (Wilco, T.V. on the Radio and many lesser bands have heard that prophecy before), is such a hefty endorsement that Ladbrokes puts the odds of them taking home the Mercury Prize at 9:4.
Despite the lofty comparisons, An Awesome Wave does not overwhelm with fanfare. Instead, it opens with the cinematic “Intro” and “Interlude 1,” an a capella duet that uses open harmonies to create a near-hymnal atmosphere (a surprising theme during Wave’s quieter moments). It is not until “Tesselate” that we truly witness the band at full bore. Amid languid guitar tones and itchy, dubstep-inspired rhythms, lead singer Joe Newman turns geometry into a come on, somehow twisting ruminations about a triangle’s properties into something sexual and sinister. On “Breezeblocks,” Newman delivers lines culled from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are while the band shows compositional restraint likely learned from former Mercury winners (and fellow lowercase letter aficionados) The xx, though with decisively more punch. “Dissolve Me” is a stadium-scorcher if this album has one, but thanks to Newman’s understated delivery and the band’s immaculately measured performance, it refrains from launching into anything resembling bombast.
The album was written and recorded over a five-year period, and it shows; the production is crystal clear, with Newman’s voice finding room in the mix alongside liquid synthesizers, subtle percussion tricks and fuzzed-out basslines. This is fortunate, as Newman’s expressive lyrics and delivery are masterful. “Something Good,” written about the death of matador, exemplifies alt-j’s wistful and foreboding tone; there is an underlying ambiguity to Newman’s literary perspective that makes you reach for the lyrics sheet.
“Matilda,” the album’s emotional core, best embodies the “folk-step” label some critics are pinning on alt-J. Vaguely pastoral acoustic guitars are juxtaposed by a half-time drum figure that propels but never pushes or disrupts Newman’s desperate and resigned vocal. While drummer Thom Green is certainly a capable and creative one, he looks wisest during the moments of the record where he doesn’t play, whether it is for a measure during “Tesselate’s” climactic chorus or for entire tracks, such as on earnest closing track “Hand-Made” or the reflective interludes peppered throughout the album.
The solemnity that runs throughout the record — aggrandized by choral bridges seemingly informed by Gregorian chant — is tempered by occasional lapses into moments of levity, as on the resplendent and romantic (“I pillowed you so many times this week”) “Ms”, and twisted aggression, as in the unsettling gang-rape depiction of “Fitzpleasure.” It’s a bold and disconcerting track that reinforces alt-J’s literary and cinematic bent; based off a scene from the novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, the song’s blunt language and disjointed descriptions exude brutality. Few bands would describe such a situation in a song; even fewer would do so between chants of “tralalala.”
An Awesome Wave is, above all things, this year’s most daring and captivating debut. The band’s performance throughout is thoroughly disciplined and economical, never indulgent nor too spare. Newman’s contributions as a frontman are astounding, whether he is depicting the macabre or navigating the lilting melody of “Interlude 1.” Balancing accessible songs with ambitious lyrical construction and sonic experimentation, Wave is a testament to alt-J’s unique vision, a methodically modern album that challenges convention and isn’t afraid to play the antagonist if need be.