alt-J are a bit like Marmite, aren’t they? We either love them or hate them. Maybe you’re in Camp A, still confused by a band who’d name themselves after the Mac shortcut for triangle. Maybe you’re in Camp B, having had the privilege of being lured across a field by a rare and unusual sound, more years ago than you’d care to admit. Thrown aimlessly into the arms of alt-J, floating on the wrong side of too much alcohol as the ethereal vocals surrounded them and somehow, it all clicked into place and you just kinda… got it. Maybe you’re Camp C? Coasting a rare knowledge of the band as they ride the river Styx into their fourth album.
Anyway it doesn’t matter as, with The Dream, the band offer a record of multiple personalities, lamenting on love, murder, Coca-Cola, cryptocurrency and relationship breakdown. In short, The Dream is an experimental, living, breathing art-piece – so versatile it contains something for just about everyone.
The album is a lockdown baby. After taking a year off, the band rented a house in East London and let the magic flow. This isn’t essential to the form of the album, but rather entrenched in it, colouring the band’s signature darkness with a sense of anxiety and pandemic insecurity we’re all so familiar with. It’s true that no dream is original – we can only conjure in our sleep state images we’ve seen before, so it makes sense that now is the time the band took to look inward and let us frolic in their personal emotional landscapes. The Dream hangs on the form of – you guessed it – a dream, an astral corridor dropping in and out of consciousness, a restless, tormented night. Like your dreams, it is not linear; people, places and time fade in and out. It is both laden with exquisite harmonies and drenched in pure a cappella vocals alone. And, like a dream, it’s best to experience it all at once, or not at all.
We begin with a crackle of a Coke can and a fizz. A swallow. Bane then submits operatic vocals that swim up and take us into that astral corridor of the album, our deep sleep state. A Greek chorus all at once chant “I sold my soul” as much as a comment on capitalism as it is on our consumption of it, and this album. It’s ritualistic, biblical, occult – if you’ve ever had night terrors, this is what they sound like. Immediately we’re pulled further down into our slumber, as soft vocals command us “I dive in, swimming and dreaming” and we’re snoozing – ready for the ride. Along the way our dream morphs in and out of situations we recognise. U&ME is a sex dream, dripping with sweat in the corners of a fetish club at 4am when you’ve lost count of how many people have seen you naked. It’s latex and the scent of leather and sweat.
Next, we warp into lead track Hard Drive Gold, a tongue in cheek track about cryptocurrency millions, with quite the funky disco beat. After all, who hasn’t dreamt of being a millionaire? Happier When You’re Gone returns us to the astral rivers, a lament to an ex you’re sure you didn’t feel that way about. The Actor is a nightmare, tinged with the anxiety of an invisible virus that you might have right now – you just don’t know yet. Then bam, Get Better begins – we’re awake at 4am, back with that ex, listening as thunder and lightning harmonies bounce off the walls of our bed in the dark. Eventually we get back to sleep, as Chicago once again pulls us back to our dream state. Except this time, our dreams are of the past – and the songs past this point of The Dream return to a more signature alt-J sound – yet, still informed by our slumber to this point.
It’s true of The Dream as much as it is of any other alt-J album, these are not really songs. They’re an experience, a musical tapestry, threads from all the art-pieces winding together to guide us, by the hand, slowly through an immersive experience. With The Dream, we see a maturing band dip deep into their emotions, immersing us not only in art and culture but in their dreams, and it is utterly brilliant.