An Awesome Wave was the debut album by Alt-J (Crotchety Man’s band of the year 2014). It’s an astonishingly mature release for a first album but perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising given that the band was formed nearly five years before the album hit the shops in 2012. The title is a quote from the film American Psycho, which hints at an off-beat and potentially disturbing approach to art and life. Certainly, An Awesome Wave is one of the most original albums to come out of the contemporary music scene for a very long time.
I’m going to take you through the 14 tracks on the album and try to give a flavour of what it’s like to hear it for the first time. For any ordinary collection of musical pieces this would quickly become repetitive and boring but I think I can find something different and interesting about each track on An Awesome Wave. If I’m right and you’re still reading this post when I have described the ‘hidden’ track at the end I will have illustrated my point about its freshness and originality well enough.
Track 1 is just called Intro. It starts with some gentle piano – a chord and its echo swinging to and fro – rocking the baby’s cradle. Soon the piano is joined by crisp guitars, bass and drums emphasising the rhythm and gradually a simple tune emerges. There’s a pleasing subtlety in the sound that promises some relaxing late night listening. The rhythm section fades away leaving a short motif of low piano notes before the whole band bursts in abruptly again, picking up the beat and adding a strange, reedy vocal part to the mix. The words are indistinct, struggling to come through over a fuzzy guitar; my ears can only pick out something about a cannon. If you look them up you’ll find the lyrics don’t make much sense – and it’s ‘canon’, not ‘cannon’. The backing track fades out again; the vocalist whispers, “one, two, three”; a female voice sighs, “Yeah…”; and the band launches into the main theme once more before slowly fading out. If that’s just the intro there must be many treats to come.
The title of Track 2 is (Ripe and Ruin). The parentheses seem to indicate that, like tracks 5 and 11, this is a musical interlude. It is certainly short at 1 minute 12 seconds. It turns out to be a two-part a cappella piece with heavy echo. Unlike the first track, these lyrics are clearly important.
She only ever walks to count her steps,
Eighteen strides and she stops to abide
By the law that she herself has set.
The song has the feel of a madrigal, an ancient truth in the form of a poem set to music. The harmonies are delightful and the words are intriguingly poetic. What does it mean? I’m not sure but the message seems to lie in the last line:
Like all good fruit the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin.
In track 3, Tesselate, the tempo picks up a little. Like Intro it starts with slow piano chords but quickly acquires a syncopated drum beat followed by the reedy voice of the first two tracks over guitar and synthesiser parts. Musically, Tesselate is rather more conventional but it blends the different textures exceptionally well. Here is the first candidate for what might be a typical Alt-J composition. It has plenty of sonic light and shade, an infectious tune and lyrics that hang in the hinterland somewhere between sense and nonsense.
Triangles are my favorite shape
Three points where two lines meet
Toe to toe, back to back, let’s go, my love; it’s very late
‘Til morning comes, let’s tessellate.
Now, you’d have to be barmy to write a song about Breezeblocks, wouldn’t you? That didn’t put off Alt-J, though, as we can see and hear with track 4 of An Awesome Wave. Actually, it’s not about breezeblocks, it’s a love song. The passion is a bit one sided, though. The singer wants to hold on to his lover but feels he has to “hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks”. There are those quirky lyrics again, this time over up-tempo guitar and tinkly keyboard. Like Tesselate, it’s a catchy song that refuses to fit into a recognised genre.
Track 5 is another interlude; it’s called (Guitar). At this point in the album we have learned to expect the unexpected, but Alt-J now give us a double-bluff. (Guitar) is a short, contemplative acoustic guitar solo. The only unusual element is faint sounds of traffic and background conversation heard as if through a half-open window a dozen storeys above a busy street. With this track it is clear that there is a high level of musicianship in the band.
The next track opens with a rat-a-tat-tat on a tuneless snare drum. Wake up, folks, ’cause this is Something Good. And, yes, it is good. Track 6 rattles along, melding guitars and rippling piano, handclaps and vocals, each part finding its own place in the colourful weave of the music. Unjustified optimism spills from every vocal beat because “something good tonight will make me forget about you for now”. Well, it’s nice to have a happy song for a change.
Track 7 is Dissolve Me. At its heart this is a jaunty song punctuated by episodes of heavily fuzzed electric bass. There’s an off-kilter rhythm that the words don’t quite fit and yet their sounds create a seaside soundscape: “She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes …”. As the last line repeats the mind’s eye sees a receding tide, each wave a little smaller and softer than the last.
Next comes the most instantly accessible song on the album, Matilda. An unaccompanied voice sings a few preliminary words, “This is from Matilda …”, before a picked guitar lays down a gentle groundwork for synth, bass and drums to fill in and ornament. There’s a simple melody inviting you to sing along – and you would if only you could make out Matilda’s message in the verse. (Something about a grenade and understanding who’s boss.) The backing instruments fade out and the guitar takes us into the chorus. “This is from Matilda. And she needs you. This is from Matilda.” Now, everything makes sense and you do find yourself singing along, lost in the sumptuous comfort of the tune. But it’s only a short period of sanity. The verse repeats (that grenade again) and, finally, the sanity of the chorus returns for a long, satisfying fade out.
As if to demonstrate that there is no end to their creativity Alt-J have given track 9 one of the shortest titles in the songbook: Ms. It opens with slow guitar chords, lead and backing vocals, and the tinkle of ceramic bells. Surprisingly, this introduction doesn’t lead into a passage for the full band, instead we get a sparse a cappella section – two echoing voices – and a few beats of silence. “The dark seeks dark … Ooh, darker.” This is followed by a characteristically cryptic chant: “The nights of all my youth pressed into one glass of water”. Only then do we get to the meat of the song, which turns out to be a fuller arrangement of the introduction. And Alt-J‘s disregard for conventional song structure doesn’t end there. After the intro/theme we get a lazy bridge section of fluttering guitar notes that doubles as the finale. It all ends much too soon. But, if you check the clock, you’ll find this track is a full 3 minutes 59 seconds long.
We’ve reached track 10, Fitzpleasure. By now we are beginning to know what to expect from Alt-J‘s music and this track has it all: a cappella singing, full and sparse arrangements, tinkly synth effects, impressive guitar licks and weird words chosen for their sound more than their meaning. But above all it urges us on with an insistent beat and heavy bass riffs. “Come on boys”, it seems to say. “In your snatch fits pleasure.”
(Piano) is musical interlude number three. It’s actually a little snippet for piano and voice just 54 seconds long. It’s hardly a track at all, just a pleasing phrase played twice, a breathing space between the real songs, a piece of tape rescued from the recording studio floor. And that, of course, is reason enough to mention it specifically here.
Track 12 is Bloodflood. It starts slowly and ambles peacefully along. Guitar and piano parts complement each other, each sparkling like the sun on the waves of a calm sea, while the drumsticks clatter a woodpecker’s rap. We are at one with nature. Even the words make some sort of sense.
… a wave, an awesome wave
That rushes skin and widens in flooded veins.
There’s an unquenchable heartbeat in the music. It’s a never ending song, an eternal ode to the universe. But, just as we are settling back into our favourite armchair to listen, the instruments gradually fall silent and the song ends as quietly as it began. Once again, Alt-J seem to have given us a lovely introduction and forgotten to give us the middle section. And yet, Bloodflood is the longest track on the album so far at 4 minutes 9 seconds.
If we ignore the ‘bonus’ track for now the last song on An Awesome Wave is Taro. This one seems to be a protest song lamenting the death and destruction wrought by war. It is the only track on the album that uses synthesised strings to add a little melancholy to the music. And yet, Alt-J still give it enough of a beat to avoid the dirge and enough light and shade to avoid despair. It is, in fact, yet another very enjoyable song.
On the CD (according to Wikipedia) the 13th track contains two songs: the aforementioned Taro and a ‘bonus track’ called Hand-made, separated by 5 minutes of silence. The download version has sensibly separated the two tracks and eliminated the gap. So, what of Hand-made? Well, it reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on. There are rippling guitar chords sounding much like a harp and a vocal refrain reminiscent of novelty records. It’s an Alt-J song all right but somehow it doesn’t work quite as well as the other 13 tracks on the album.
Alt-J with Miley Cyrus, December 2014
So, dear reader, are you still with me? Have I convinced you that An Awesome Wave is fresh, original and worth listening to? I hope so because there’s a lot to savour on this album and I’d hate you to miss it.