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Album Review: Alt-J - 'The Dream'

Updated: May 4, 2023

The trio of English rockers, Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Sonny Green, have been building a following in the United States since their Mercury-Award-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave. For me, their complex storytelling includes lyrics that always seem familiar enough, including enough pop culture references along the way for us to feel invested, but still leave you wondering if you halfway understood what the song was about. Considering the band’s vast use of historical context and inspiration that seemingly comes from just about anywhere, the number of interpretations for their tracks are limitless. We’ve been waiting since the band’s 2017 RELAXER album to finally have new Alt-J content to dissect. Appropriately titled for the most interpreted of topics, The Dream, keeps true to the band’s eccentricity while inviting the listener to find their own interpretation.

The first characteristic I discovered with The Dream, is that Alt-J has found even more ways to diversify their catalogue while staying true to their style. Alt-J’s mix of indie rock, with enough other nuanced genres built in, can only be summarized with the Alternative label most commonly associated with their music.

The intro track, “Bane,” begins with the opening of some sort of canned beverage and slugging it down. While we meander through light guitar plucking behind chanted lyrics, the song takes a turn shortly after the two-minute mark with heavily-synthesized lyrics. This is a solid intro track that continues to build into the band’s lead single from the album.

The album’s second track, “U&ME,” shares the story of two people getting closer while experiencing something beautiful together. We have the benefit of knowing most of the inspiration comes from the lead singer, Joe Newman, attending an Australian music festival with his partner. We get the sense that this time wouldn’t have meant as much if it weren’t with anyone else, which begs the question as to whether the setting was as important to the experience as the company. The band uses creative liberties with drug use, that according to the band, did not occur. Maybe the band felt obligated to fit the usual narrative of a music festival with drug use because, aren’t those stories always a little more interesting?

Next, “Hard Drive Gold” carries much more of an upbeat melody to excitedly describe a teenager in the throes of life as a crypto trader, which could not be more relevant than it is now. The pre-chorus, “Don’t be afraid to make, to make money, boy,” describes the varying angles from which those who surround the protagonist can take with their input. From teachers to family, the protagonist finds that the opinions of those around them have changed simply from the overnight wealth and shapes how each of these people will continue to judge them in the future as if the money automatically changes the person.

Musically, the next track on the album, “Happier When You’re Gone,” is my absolute favorite on the album. While admittedly, I’m a sucker for Alt-J’s more ominous sounding tracks in general, I find HWYG gives the feel of a breakup song with the enthusiasm you feel after you’ve started realizing you’re in a better place after it’s all over.

In what is likely to be the last single before the album’s release, “The Actor,” is rife with Hollywood references to the common outcome of the glitzy, glamorous lifestyles fueled by drugs of our Hollywood elite. Indeed, the John “whose body got carried out” is a reference to John Belushi, who embodied this lifestyle more than most and paid the ultimate price.

Sticking with the topic of morbidity, Get Better is another slow-building track from the perspective of someone whose loved one has either been injured or has passed. The lyrics reinforce the love the person shared and how difficult it is that they are gone. Direct references to frontline workers seem to serve as perhaps a subtle political element, but also as a timestamp.

Alt-J has always been a band whose music grows more fondly to me as time passes. I’m looking forward to what I will hear from these tracks after hundreds of listens like I have with all of the band’s other releases. I definitely see The Dream becoming one of my favorite albums from the band and should be a heavy challenger for Album of the Year for me. Yes, it’s early, but that’s how much I enjoy this album and band.

Rating - 4.75/5

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