by Ryan Fine
England’s Alt-J are a bit of an odd success story. Their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave didn’t seem like a typical candidate for worldwide success with its unusual song structures and alien-like vocal style. Nevertheless, singles like “Tessellate” and “Breezeblocks” slowly gained an audience in the Western hemisphere before the album was finally released in America a few months after its European release. By the time they followed it up with This is All Yours in 2014, the world was ready to hear something even more strange and dramatic. What they got instead was a quaint album with a loose story arc and only a few loud moments.
Their newest song, “3WW” (which I will forever pronounce “three-dubs”), follows that trajectory even further. Despite its subtle intensity, this is the most relaxed song the band has released by far, which is only to be expected as the lead single from an album called Relaxer. It notably contrasts acoustic guitar with synthetic percussion throughout the entire instrumental introduction, with the rest of the song going through various musical phases.
Generally speaking, a lead single is supposed to be catchy and immediate, especially when the song is also the opening track of the record. “3WW” is a bold subversion, guaranteeing that the first two minutes of Relaxer will be much more subdued than even the introduction tracks from Alt-J’s other albums. Even when the vocals finally come in and Gus Unger-Hamilton starts setting the story of the “wayward lad”, it doesn’t yet feel like the song has begun in earnest. For the rest of the song, it almost seems like this boy’s tale is happening in a different world from the main lyrics, which detail a narrator’s poetically vague experiences with love.
The song’s cryptic title is finally unraveled in the chorus, where it is revealed to stand for “three worn words.” Presumably, those three words are “I love you”, which many people believe are overused in media. The end of the chorus features the band’s most beautifully delivered line ever, as the instruments cut out and Joe Newman sings “I just want to love you in my own language.” Overall, these choruses are the lushest parts of the song, which is saying a lot since all of these sections are beautiful on their own.
The only real issue is that I’m not sure the various sections of the song flow into each other the way they should. Having three different singers, not all of whom are singing about the same thing, was a risky move when the choruses and verses are so instrumentally distinct from each other. It’s hard to connect all these pieces in only five minutes, but these guys do their best, and they patch it together in a way that still makes it listenable.
If the rest of the album sounds like this, as its title would suggest, then there is a lot of reason to be excited. This song is a lot different from anything this band has done before, bearing much more similarity to drummer Thom Green’s solo work. There are even some shades of early Pink Floyd in the storytelling sections, but it barely ever recalls even a moment from An Awesome Wave. It’s good to see that the band can paint with a different palette and still make it as serene and interesting as this.
All Images From: Genius
Alt-J’s new song is an exercise in making extremely mellow music and still staying true to their original sound. Even though “3WW” is a love song, it’s handled a lot differently from the way most people write them. The lyrics are cryptic but beautiful, and the rest of the music is just as compelling. Even when the song doesn’t completely fit together, each of its various parts stands well enough on its own to make up for it. If the rest of Relaxer is as strong as “3WW”, there is a lot to look forward to from Alt-J.
Ryan is a Music Media Production major who wrote the first ever Byte music review and has been involved with nearly every other section at some point. He is also an event planner at Village Green Records and the primary booking coordinator for the store’s outdoor concerts.