Alt-j '3wW' review

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Originally published in The Hullfire.

Alt-J return with something new – and definitely ‘something good’ –ahead of the release of their third album. Their second record, This Is All Yours, followed a similar style to their award-winning and undoubtedly unique debut, An Awesome Wave. If this new track is anything to go by, Relaxer promises to push the boundaries yet again and be something quite special.

The title like the song itself doesn’t immediately reveal much. ‘3WW’ is an acronym for ‘Three Worn Words’ which happens to be the first line of the… chorus? Whether this song has a chorus or not is unclear, but more on that in a moment. In the same vein as Bon Iver’s latest challenging record 22, Million, Alt-J have shunned the conventional use of a song title. Maybe this is to grab our attention; maybe it is a gimmick? However, I would instead suggest, that the title reflects the elusive nature of the song, not really knowing what the song is until you’ve fully immersed yourself in it.

As a lead single it is slow to start; a similar choice to their previous record from which they released the Miley Cyrus-sampling ‘Hunger of the Pine’. Both songs require the listener to spend time with it before any sort of pay off. But the payoff comes. In spades.

‘3WW’ starts with a gentle pull off, pull on on the acoustic guitar backed by a murmuring bass rhythm. Even this continues for longer than might be expected before the voice of Gus Unger-Hamilton delivers the first verse a minute or so in, a strange inflection of folk which is juxtaposed against the modern electronics that back the song. Joe Newman’s distinctive voice is introduced and then, with no introduction, a choral blast of ‘Oh these three worn words’ that almost emulates Queen. This is more than just a chorus; rather the spring from which the rest of the song flows; until this point hidden, waiting behind the whimsical rhythm before revealing itself. This is followed by the softer piano backed line ‘I just want to love you in my own language’. It is tender, affecting and yet totally in sync with the rest of the song despite being composed of something entirely different.

The songs eclectic mix of elements is not over however as Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell makes an appearance, her verse backed by more distorted crunching electronics. This inclusion is a masterstroke; the duet that follows, singing the chorus again, is even more beautiful than the first time. The song ends as it started along with some field recording of background laughter and the crackle of a ‘campfire’, adding some colour to the story that has been painted about a lad’s exploration of love and what it means, unique only to him. This song is certainly unique and with its different parts, it’s really unlike anything I’ve heard.

A look at Relaxer’s track list reveals that it only comprises of eight songs, which means no track can hide. To have an album that sparse suggests they are confident in the individual weight of each track, and they really do have to each be a feast of their own. My impression is that Alt-J are the kind of band who can make that happen. If you’re willing to put out a song like ‘3WW’ as your first single then the stakes have certainly been raised.