Remember that epic spaceship scene in Alien (1979), when Kane (John Hurt) is slurping chow-mein one second and chest-bursting a bloody alien the next? Lead vocalist of Alt-J, Joe Newman, does. He even wrote a song about it — called it “The Gospel of John Hurt” — and it’s as weird as it sounds, maybe even emblematic of Alt-J itself: The band’s outsider essence on its sophomore album, This is All Yours, refuses to conform to any label.

Alt-J

A
This is All Yours
Infectious Records


The song begins with Tetris. The narrator likening himself to the life of an “L-shaped” tile with “no space … to fit in” — like an “Alien.” Dehumanization at its finest and a smooth segueway into the chorus, the climax, where the narrator’s “chest bursts like John Hurt.” There’s no happy ending here. Hurt is more than hurt, he’s dead, and his gory guts are splayed across the ship. Newman’s narrator, invoking the prophet Jeremiah and chanting “E-X-T-I-N-C-T,” seems headed for a similar grizzly end.

Other songs are also creepy and complex. “Arrival in Nara” describes a girl drowning (“Rope constricts / Rips her towards the ocean”) who accepts her fate, and dies in a fit of synesthesia (“I can hear her smile as she sings”). “Bloodflood Pt. II” is about — you guessed it — blood, and Newman is vivid like usual in showing us the “slash slash” of “Razor blades on a melted toothbrush.” “Hunger of the Pine,” is not about eating pine trees as I thought … but ‘pining’, which is that feeling when (basically) love turns to shit and your heart is shattered and sickens your mind and body — all through a well-talked-about Miley Cyrus sample.

But there’s something also funny here that I’m missing, some playful quality to the album that was nonexistent on An Awesome Wave, the band’s Mercury-Prize-winning first album. You hear in the instrumentation on “Garden of England,” a Shire-esque interlude filled with birds and cheerful wood flutes (played by Hobbits?) that on any other album, would feel completely out of place. You hear it on “Left Hand Free,” where Newman has filtered his voice to mimic a trucker-dude on the radio, so we can imagine him wacking it with his free left as he speeds down I-90. And you hear it with silly lines like: “Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet” or “Love is a pharaoh and he’s boning me.”

Call it prog-rock, indie-electronica, experimental-folk, whatever soothes our craving to label and define. But This Is All Yours just doesn’t fit all neat and tidy in any one box. “Warm Foothills” is too ethereal to be rock, “Arrival in Nara” too acoustic to be electronica, “Leaving Nara” too synthesized to be folk.

I don’t mean to dismiss genre as superficial or claim Alt-J has transcended its wide grasp. Genre is important, and helps us categorize a piece of art so we can gain a deeper understanding of both it and its relationship to others. At least in theory. But I feel like we think of genre too squarely, use it too flippantly. This Is All Yours is great because it challenges us to examine the borders of genre, and maybe, refuse its grasp. If you don’t believe me, find me another band that can sample Miley Cyrus successfully. Come on, that’s radical.

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