Courtesy of Infectious Music

April 12, 2023

XU | It’s a Lovely Day for alt-J

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I have been hunting for a specific kind of lyrical, melodic, soft electronica. I went through Sufjan Steven’s The Ascension (think “Video Game”), Jamie xx, a bit of Tame Impala and lots of Joji before remembering alt-J. The British band combines elements of electronica, rock and pop to create the distinct texture of their music. I knew their most popular song, “Breezeblocks,” but I had never really listened to their albums seriously up until now. It was down this lane of rediscovery that I stumbled upon alt-J’s version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”

Alt-J peaked around 2015. They did actually come out with a new album last year, called The Dream, but it was nowhere near as groundbreaking as An Awesome Wave (2012) or This is All Yours (2014). Their weird-sounding stuff became more homogenized in The Dream, and they seem to be leaning away from sonic experimentation and towards lyrical composition, resulting in more normal-sounding songs.Sadly for alt-J, sounding like a normal song is a step down.

Maybe this is why Pitchfork never liked them. As a goofy, alternative rock act whose songs never really go anywhere, alt-J’s albums were accused of being “overstuffed and messy” (An Awesome Wave) or “dull and tuneless.” (This is All Yours. Pitchfork makes me chuckle.) Even so, I believe there are quite a few tracks worth salvaging. Maybe not “Warm Foothills.” But definitely “Lovely Day.”

The track starts off with the band members harmonizing to a soft piano and guitar backing, and a circling synth riff. Adding to this complex structure, the lyrics “When I wake up in the morning, love” almost float into the song. If Bill Withers’ voice embraced you like the sunshine, then alt-J’s vocals are like that one beam of sun gradually getting stronger, making its way through the clouds. In short, I recognize Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” but not fully. The hesitant state of semi-recognition is precisely what this column, Seeing Double, aims to analyze.

Bill Withers. How to sum up his genius in just one paragraph? Before I knew Bill Withers, I was first obsessed with Joanna Wang’s cover of “Just the Two of Us.” (If you’ve also listened to her in your youth — contact me.) Of course, I soon got around to looking up the song on YouTube, as well as learning about Withers. Steel drums and the synth made the song sound starry, as if the music itself was giving off sparks, something I never thought was possible. Withers’ voice has an uncanny way of embodying healing and pain at the same time. Even in “Lean on Me,” as Withers encourages a friend to go to him for support, the song takes a somewhat pessimistic (and realistic) turn: “For it won’t be long / Till I’m gonna need / Somebody to lean on.”

Withers’ music relied heavily on piano, guitar backing and diverse percussive rhythms. He incorporated jazz and funk to create a rich, full sound. In some ways, whatever alt-J did to “Lovely Day” was already there in Withers’ original: the harmonizing, the meandering side melody, the funky bass. It made me appreciate the complexity of Withers’ composition more than ever before.

Alt-J’s sound is so unique that their reproduction of “Lovely Day” resists comparison. Alt-J borrows lyrics and musical elements from Withers, and the two songs echo each other in a lovely way. Alt-J’s rhythmic pattern is entirely different from that of Withers, and a fair portion of alt-J’s “Lovely Day” is slower and more synth based. In the chorus, alt-J brings back the circling synth riff and drawn-out vocal harmonizing. Alt-J seems to provide a more saturated and metallic sound, which is their understanding of what “Lovely Day” might have sounded like if it was written in the 21st century instead of 1977. Someone on Reddit (yes, there’s a thread about this song) sees it as “more of a tribute than a cover.” I thoroughly enjoyed alt-J’s “Lovely Day.” But for me, the song really matters because it was written by Bill Withers. I’m not necessarily voting in favor of alt-J simply because Bill Withers is, for lack of a better word, a real G.

Alt-J’s music is a mishmash. After all, the band started as a student production. Constraints in the creative process unleashed their experimental elements right from the start. The voice, electric guitar, bass and drums weave in and out of each other, fundamentally working together instead of centering any single voice. The band’s drummer Thom Green crafts the percussion from a wide array of instruments and toys including cowbells, bongos and tambourines. Green never uses any cymbals, leaving more room for each element to stand out on its own. The delicate balance is what allows alt-J’s music to avoid sounding overly crowded or chaotic.

What attracts me to alt-J’s music, which envelopes emotive songwriting in quirky melodies and colorful beats, is perhaps a kind of impatience with staying in the same pattern for too long. This is what gains alt-J labels like “innovative” and “genre-defying.” Behind it, I imagine, is a kind of generative anxiety that drives most creative production. The band’s name comes from the delta symbol, which is produced by hitting “alt” and the letter “j” on a Mac keyboard. Using mathematical concepts like “change” and “difference” as motifs, the band set out to provide something new for the music scene. They sound weird, but in a mesmerizing way.

The janky quality of spring weather — the gradually softening breeze, sporadic bouts of warmth, a summer that’s almost here but not quite — makes it the ideal time to treat your ears to some alt-J. This is not to say that alt-J is janky. They’re just caught in the awkward mechanisms of becoming.

Skylar Xu is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate weeks.