REVIEW: Alt-J returns with raw emotion and darkly intimate lyrics that strike with nostalgia in ‘The Dream’

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

English indie rock band Alt-J returns with their latest album “The Dream,” releasing nearly five years after its last studio album. Despite having released only four studio albums over the course of ten years, Alt-J generates a distinctiveness in themselves that places them as one of the most deeply creative bands working today. Lyrically and vocally, most of their songs are layered with meanings that lean into meta-commentary and psychological elements. There are times when their songs require multiple listens to fully understand, especially the lyrics, but they nonetheless have a piercing impact on listeners. “The Dream” is a welcome return for the band that communicates raw emotion through its intimate lyrics and soothing sounds.

The album pushes past the band’s previous work to create a new feeling while maintaining tonal consistency with prior releases. Alt-J is known for their weird and warped tracks that often cause confusion upon first listens, despite how entranced we are by the music. “The Dream” takes a few cues from the band’s 2017 short album, “Relaxer,” as a slower musical style recurs here. Most of the tracks here are less upbeat and move at a slower pace, less like “Left Hand Free” and more like “Adeline” or “Deadcrush” from 2017’s “Relaxer” album. Tracing back to “Relaxer,” “The Dream” feels like a more refined expansion to that album. Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton notes in a Rolling Stone interview that “something died on ‘Relaxer’ and something was reborn on ‘The Dream.’” Both feature darker themes and a slow pace, but “The Dream” has the upper hand, as it runs longer and has thematic consistency whereas “Relaxer’s” eight moody tracks felt repetitive and aimless, despite the strong production value. 

“The Dream” features darkly imaginative lyrics that feel closer to reality as current real-world circumstances and trends are referenced throughout. It was previously stated in a press release that the album is somewhat derived from “true-crime inspired stories and tales of Hollywood and the Chateau Marmont.” This inspiration is notable in the track titled “The Actor,” a song that details an inexperienced actor’s spiral into drugs as they discover the not-so-glamorous side of Hollywood. According to Unger-Hamilton, this is an “imagined retelling of [actor] John Belushi’s death at Chateau Mormont.” The lyrics paint the actor’s dreams of making it big in Hollywood as unachievable and an effort that grows ever-distant as he descends further into drugs before an inevitable death. 

Each song features a recurring dream motif, keeping with the album’s namesake. What makes these tracks so poignant is how Alt-J ties dreams together with nostalgia. Nostalgia takes us to older times, for better or worse, even times that we may not have experienced in our lifetime. In the case of “The Actor,” we can look back on cocaine’s rampant usage in ‘80’s Hollywood and think about the disillusionment or false sense of fulfillment it causes to users. Belushi’s comedy career was rocky, as he’d been fired and rehired for Saturday Night Live several times due to drug use. Belushi reportedly took drugs to keep up his public persona, a part of any Hollywood actor’s fame, before trying to refrain from using cocaine and eventually dying from an overdose. “The Dream” almost feels like an anthology of collected stories as several tracks speak from a dreamer’s point of view, telling stories that can be joyful, grief-stricken or tragic.

‘The Dream’ is an album that is scheduled to be released on Feb. 11 by the English indie-rock band Alt-J. (Pinterest)

“Get Better” is another emotionally-stirring track that drives home nostalgia-based themes and holds timeliness in the current world state. The song doubles as a celebratory ballad of love between the singer and their lover, as well as a mournful lament after the lover’s death. We listen to the singer maintain the romantic spark defining their relationship as they look back on the fondest memories to maintain hope for recovery despite the dwindling odds. These memories soon become dreams that are a keepsake, and coping mechanism, once the subject is gone.

Interestingly, one of the verses sung by writer and singer Joe Newman reads “Raise a spoon to frontline workers/An underfunded principle/They risk all to be there for us.” It is unclear if the song’s subject is hospitalized with COVID-19, but these lyrics tie the song to reality. Newman has said that the powerlessness brought on by the pandemic’s lockdown is a strong factor in the song’s production. The song recognizes the pandemic as a world-pausing event that makes people turn to dreams for a feeling of normalcy and to recapture happier times. “The Dream” features recurring thoughtfulness that we can appreciate as we re-listen to certain tracks.

Although “The Dream” does not have the same bombastic or surreal sound of the previous albums, we can see it as a contemplative work on human psychology. The album’s atmosphere is enriched by the nostalgic effect it creates for viewers. After spending nearly two years in a pandemic, nostalgia and the longing for simpler times are things that course through almost everyone’s minds today even when we do not realize it. Lockdown was a time for contemplation and reminiscence for most, including the Alt-J members themselves. Unger-Hamilton stated in an interview that “It is not the pandemic that has influenced this work, but the conditions it has created…For the first time [in our career], we worked without a proper deadline…” In their time, they were able to craft an album that reflects upon the world’s emotional stress and powerlessness. “The Dream” helps us see the value, as well as the downsides, of having dreams that influence our frame of mind.

It is debatable how “The Dream” ranks in Alt-J’s discography, but we can acknowledge that it is an emotionally powerful work that highlights a finessed style and maturation for the indie band. It might take a few listens to fully understand the album, but it is worth listening to during the quietest part of the day.