Coming just weeks after the nominations for the 2014 Mercury Prize were announced, it seems highly appropriate that the winners of the award two years previously should decide to release their follow-up now. alt-J’s debut An Awesome Wave beat off strong competition that year from the likes of Jessie Ware, Plan B and Field Music, with their intricate web of sparkling melodies, crunching synths and infectious vocal harmonies setting them apart.
The album was perfected over five years by the four Leeds University graduates and from listening to An Awesome Wave it was easy to understand the effort that had gone into its creation. From their obscure name – which originated from the function used to create the delta sign of a triangle on a Mac – to their carefully crafted, but busy, song arrangements, alt-J’s care and attention to their vision was second-to-none.
However, things are somewhat different second time round for the band – starting with the fact that they are now a three-piece, following the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury before the recording process started for the second album. As well as coping with the loss of a band member, the trio have also had to deal with the pressure of replicating the success of their award-winning debut in a much shorter time frame.
Yet any fears about This Is All Yours failing to live up to its predecessor were allayed by the first single from the album, Hunger Of The Pine. In many ways, the song resumed where alt-J left off, with its gentle, sweeping melody punctuated by Joe Newman’s engrossing vocals and a stuttering beat. But that familiarity ends the moment Miley Cyrus’ “I’m a female rebel” vocal is sampled from her track 4×4.
It was a typically quirky move, one that allowed the band to show evolution from their debut, while also retaining many of the qualities that made it a success. And it is that philosophy that runs throughout This Is All Yours – although not always with the same results. For one thing, alt-J’s latest effort is far more patient in the way it goes about its business, with less breakout hits compared to its predecessor.
As with An Awesome Wave, the album begins with another Intro, but this time round it lacks the punch that got their first LP off to such a strange and wondrous start. It is followed by Arrival In Nara – one of three songs referencing the Japanese city – which is a quaint, piano-driven track that further highlights alt-J’s move towards more stripped back production. When it works, it works, but when it doesn’t (Garden Of Eden) they just sound a bit lost.
Where the band are in their element is when they push themselves into unconventional and fascinating new territories. Latest single Every Other Freckle – with its much quoted “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” line – is alt-J at their most unpredictable, with its sporadic beats, buzzing synths and flickering guitar hook interspersed with the occasional yelp. It’s completely mad in the best way possible.
The same goes for the rockier Left Hand Free, which is a welcome addition to an album that often feels slightly one-paced, delivering an infectious hook with a confident swagger. Yet, other than these occasional bursts of colour, This Is All Yours is largely dominated by softer, melancholic tunes. Choice Kingdom is minimal in the extreme, while Warm Foothills and Pusher lack the invention and drive of a Breezeblocks or Something Good.
As a result, This Is All Yours does not quite reach the level of An Awesome Wave. There are still several moments of brilliance – including the mesmerising and cinematic Bloodflow Pt II, which revisits their debut – but it is also found lacking when it comes to the overall end product. That said, it remains a worthy and accomplished follow-up from alt-J, one that confirms they will not be lost to the Mercury Prize archives.