Alt-J has commissioned remixes of their music frequently, usually by EDM producers. The recently released Reduxer is a full-length reimagining of their 2017 Relaxer by 11 teams of producers and rappers. The list includes Danny Brown, Pusha T and Rejjie Snow, along with several artists from outside the English-speaking world like Lomepal, Kontra K and PJ Sin Suela. If this sounds like a strange, improbable project, it’s because it is — the album showcases many talented artists trying their best with lackluster, ill-fitting material. The result is a contradictory mess that produces several decent tracks almost in spite of itself.
The British trio’s music has always been balanced between a quaint sensibility and an electronic sheen. The band’s first two albums pair frenetic percussion, buzzing synths and vocal distortion with cinematic strings and simple, folkish melodies. Their lyrics are elliptical and reference-heavy, revolving around sex, death and the English countryside. It’s difficult to say if this assemblage adds up to a coherent statement — I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that Alt-J embodies a certain kind of mannerism that values novelty over coherence, but the staging of the uneasy stylistic tensions is, at its best, compelling. Relaxer is a bit more of a muddled statement than the first two albums — not only does the chasm widen between the band’s “loud” and “quiet” personas, but the acoustic and analog sound of the first two albums is replaced by drum machines and seething synthesizers. Even the bassoon solo in “Last Year” and the huge orchestral swells in “Pleader” come across as digital beings, surreally summoned in a barren landscape.
Though “Deadcrush” and “3WW” begin to resemble hip hop, Reduxer is a decidedly new, and improbable, direction for the band. Hip hop is not the ideal format for an Alt-J remix. Alt-J makes complicated, slowly-developing instrumentals, whereas hip hop is a performer-centric genre where instrumentals are constructed out of a small handful of contrasting phrases. Hip-hop producers sample music wildly alien to their milieu all the time, but the issue with the “official” remix as a form is that remixes need to do justice to the original song. They retain the original title, and there’s a certain pressure on it to follow the original’s content. The content of Relaxer resists incorporation into rap music, even as the artists are pressured to do a version of the original songs.
Reduxer is weighed down by its own format. The commissioned artists seem at a loss as to what to do with what they have been given. There are moments of all-out incoherence, such as in the remix of “Hit Me Like That Snare” by Jimi Charles Moody. The blues-rock vocalist/producer makes a heroic attempt to rescue the song from itself (“Leather slings fall like oxygen masks / We’re going down, fuck my life in half”). The juxtaposition between Moody’s soulful R&B vocals and the ludicrous original is jarring.
More often, though, the weaker remixes are just boring rehashes of the original, with little added besides a verse or two from the rapper. The Lomepal version of “3WW” takes the second half of the song and barely alters it. His voice and flow are pleasant, but it doesn’t really feel like he really put a stamp on it. The Kontra K version of “In Cold Blood” does much the same thing. GoldLink and Terrance Martin’s remix of “Last Year” only barely escapes this mode through a deft re-contextualization of Marika Hackman’s vocals, but it flatlines with Joe Newman’s aimless verse, in which he counts to 10 in Japanese and monotones about leaving porridge on the boil.
However, there are moments of successful translation. Hex, Paigey Cakey and ADP turn “Adeline” into glazed-over codeine trap. The version of “Deadcrush” by Danny Brown and The Alchemist takes the original into a nightmarish clown world. Twin Shadow and Pusha T’s version of “In Cold Blood” strips the song for parts and quantizes them to a gliding trap beat. The most successful of the collection is PJ Sin Suela and Trooko’s version of “Pleader.” I didn’t think the lines “To behold such warmth / Call to arms these harmonies” could sound sinister, but they absolutely do here. It’s a remix that recalls the older term “flip” — this is a complete, and brilliant reversal, of the original.
A remix is not an homage, and the album loses a lot of potential by treating the form so narrowly. There are moments of brilliance, but they mostly arise from the artists going entirely counter to the material. Overall, the album feels like a pointless exercise in Procrustean accommodation — one is left with the impression that their talents are best applied elsewhere.