Alt-J – Reduxer: Rebooted Relaxer enlists international hip-hop talent
Alt-J’s third studio album, 2017’s Relaxer, was a polarising affair to say the least. Following half a decade of Radiohead comparisons, festival-headlining slots and general ubiquity since they nasally warbled their way into the mainstream in a cloud of layered folk guitar, the group’s last offering provoked a certain degree of head-scratching. Within the space of just eight tracks, it jolted between sparse, acoustic guitar-driven soundscapes and strange, bass-heavy forays into the more unsettling parts of singer Joe Newman’s imagination. One year on, the former Leeds arts students are back to find out whether Relaxer’s ultimately confusing lack of discernible direction can be remedied by drafting in a motley crew of collaborators from the four corners of the hip-hop world.
This reboot of Relaxer enlists international hip-hop talent. Strange though it may seem at first, Newman and co. have long professed their appreciation of hip-hop in interviews and, even upon first listen, many of the guest verses fit seamlessly over Relaxer’s more drawn-out instrumentals.
Among the more surprising names on the list of collaborators is Pusha T. Seemingly still riding the wave of renewed notoriety set in motion by his high-profile spat with Drake, the Bronx native bursts onto a shiny new version of single ‘In Cold Blood’, complete with extra production from Dominican-American artist Twin Shadow. While it may not offer much additional lyrical depth, it’s a swaggering, synth-charged reboot that makes for an enjoyable listen all the same.
Elsewhere, Islington-born rising star Little Simz’s gritty flow as she reworks album opener ‘3WW’ constitutes an interesting counterweight to the original both sonically and lyrically. “Am I right or am I right?” she spits between self-assured assertions of her evident prowess, punctuated by Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s cooing about the song’s original protagonist, a “wayward lad” wandering England’s East coast.
Indeed, Reduxer’s most compelling moments come when guest artists work within the boundaries of the original tracks, leaving them all the richer for it. Parisian alternative rapper Lomepal is one such collaborator and one of several – along with Puerto Rican rapper PJ Sin Suelo and the German Kontra K – to do so in a language other than English. Thematically speaking, the quirky Frenchman’s contribution is a riff on the track’s sentimental climax (“I just want to love you in my own language,”) but, delivered with conviction and what sounds like just the right amount of uncontrived vulnerability, it uses the framework of the original to great effect.
The real takeaway from Rexuder, however, seems to be even more uncertainty about the identity of a band that has, thus far, proven restless. If Relaxer was the sound of a group comfortable enough to try out a frenetic evolution of its sound in multiple directions at once, Reduxer works as an extension of that, and the prospect of similar such gambles in the future becomes increasingly intriguing. Alt-J’s latest outings have shown us that they don’t always hit the mark with their jarring attempts at innovation, but Reduxer offers hope that it’s worth sticking around for the moments when they do.