My immediate reaction upon hearing the track “Fitzpleasure” for the first time: “Has Adam Sandler reentered the music industry?” Between the obscene lyrics (“In your snatch fits pleasure”) and the nasally vocals, I found it impossible to take Alt-J seriously. Luckily, An Awesome Wave had garnered significant buzz, so I gave it a listen in spite of my reservations. I was surprised to find that behind the air of absurdity and underneath daring and potentially offensive lyrics lie a controversial and brilliant album.
It’s impossible to discount the musicianship behind An Awesome Wave. The album is densely populated with memorable melodies and innovative riffs. Most impressively, Alt-J blends an array of diverse influences so seamlessly that it’s difficult to notice the variety of styles present. The majority of the songs feature an ethereal folk vibe, but the influences stretch far beyond this.
“Taro,” a tragic love story about war journalists who are killed during their jobs, is one of the best songs of the year. The two verses feature a beautiful winding melody between dreamy acoustic guitars. Just as the melody seems to hit its apex, it completely changes course as Joe Newman sings “Do not spray into eyes / I have sprayed you into my eyes.” Finally, the real chorus arrives in the form of Middle-Eastern instrumentation that diverges from the rest of the sound yet complements it perfectly. During the last phase of the song, the riff is accompanied by dream-poppy vocals that bring the beautiful and innovative song to a close.
“Something Good” displays an overall similar level of creativity, despite verses that feature repetitive vocals, anticlimactic melodies, and a piano piece that seems a tad out of place. All of the buildup in the verses paves the way for a killer chorus, one that I have sung in the shower far too many times. While some may find the verses’ lack of melody boring, I find that the wait and anticipation serve to make the chorus even more powerful.
Alt-J employs a similar strategy on the album as a whole to ensure that the melodies maintain their poignancy. Many of the songs feature ethereal guitar over meandering melodies and are meant to provide a reprieve from the heavy sound that engulfs much of the album. The song “Bloodflood,” which precedes the incredible “Taro,” epitomizes this strategy. As Newman sings “A wave / an awesome wave,” the listener is escorted through a sea of light acoustic guitars.
Although the music is incredible, the album’s lyrics leave something to be desired. They are almost impossible to decipher, as they are not only cryptic and replete with obscure references, but also sung with a strange effect. As a result, I was forced to resort to research to figure out what they said. I was disappointed to find that many of the lyrics are incredibly obscene and not very constructive. “Fitzpleasure” references the novel “Last Exit in Brooklyn” and describes a brutal gang rape scene, yet the melody is upbeat and bouncy. It is incredibly ambitious to discuss a topic so odious, and Alt-J does it tastelessly. “Breezeblocks,” which describes a relationship fight that ends in a murder, suffers from a similar issue; there is a chasm between the lightness of the music and the gravity of the content.
Alt-J has noted in interviews that he wrote these (in my opinion, poorly crafted) lyrics with the goal of bringing attention to these atrocities—he did not intend to glorify them in any way despite the levity of the music. Still, the lyrics end up detracting from the album, and if this offends you, I suggest you go on your way.
However, if you are willing to give Alt-J the benefit of the doubt and overlook the subject matter, you will be able to reap the benefits of this musical gem. It’s rare that an album has such a combination of enjoyable songs and great production. If you appreciate music like I do and can separate it from the lyrics, ignore my previous paragraph and listen to the album a few times without trying to dissect its meaning. You will have indulged in what may be one of the best albums of the year. Alt-J has crafted something that few bands can ever attain with its debut, An Awesome Wave. But if the group wants to win me as fan, it will have to show some more maturity.