Atlantic · February 11, 2022
Indie rock band alt-J startles the new year with their fourth album The Dream. The album wraps listeners into a surreal experience reflecting on lost memories and sentimentality — ultimately becoming the band’s most personal and open-hearted release yet.
“The Bane” sets a strong start to the album. The song opens with smooth, melodic guitar trills and builds up to a cinematic moment. A choir of voices comes in a minute later, followed by a group humming, “I sold my soul.” Alt-J uses their signature experimentation with sound to include an underwater gurgling effect that fits with the lyrics, “I’ll dive in, swimming and drinking.” Drums add an extra kick to the already wondrous track, with a shift towards a singing-focused section that transports listeners to some sort of dream state. A collection of mixing sounds occurs again, before trailing to seconds of silence.
“U&ME” is next, and while the track gushes more waves of indie and is perfect for cruising, it is slightly repetitive and more prone to be dismissed (although the distorted guitar does add a sweet twist). “Hard Drive Gold” is a more striking song driving a message of hustling, with an upbeat chorus of “Don’t be afraid to make money, boy.” Vocalist Joe Newman relies on his unique storytelling throughout these tracks, especially in “Happier When You’re Gone,” which has an eerie beginning and a scratchy, slowed down tempo. The lyrics are the most haunting here, as lead singer Joe Newman sings about “Benzo timelines, cuts smiles to straight lines,” and “It’s not easy, it’s not easy, homelessness at home.” By maintaining a relaxing pace to the song, the band brings on darker undertones. The song’s blues inspiration brings images of fields, countryside, and isolation to mind.
“The Actor” follows another dire narrative of a man pursuing an acting career in LA, only to fall into a life of drugs instead. The most striking line, “I’m at the deepest end of an empty pool,” reflects the man’s suffering. This leads into “GET BETTER”, with has a stripped back acoustic guitar instrumental. This song isn’t any more lighthearted, as a man reflects on his lover who has passed on. Newman sings about “Your Nutella I’ll keep in the cellar, you were always a fan of that spread,” and the man pretending she is still in another room. The song ends with a recording of a woman laughing and echoing the line, “get better,” before ending with a click.
There is an allowed pause before transitioning to the next song. The album reverts back to a more peaceful lull, save for “Chicago,” starting with sound effects of low rumbling and thunder. There is a quiet, longer silence in the song as it takes time to soak. Eventually, a kick pedal begins to emerge with a rhythm change; strings are plucked, and it shifts to clapping. Haunted vocals sing, “An apparition lifts me up,” before resuming a regular pitch. Thematically, the song seems to speak about a memory, or reminiscing.
“Philadelphia” is enhanced with opera singer Christie Valeriano singing back the song title with an orchestra playing in sync, continuing the dream-like sequence. “Walk a Mile” is the longest song on the tracklist at six minutes, filled with soul like the previous track. Although the first two verses are similar, it doesn’t drag; it feels like being caught in a trance, lost in thought. “Delta” and “Losing my Mind” are not as memorable as the previous tracks, but “Powders” is a nice finish to the album, creating a sensation of drifting away and getting lost in the sway of the music. A script is read in the middle of the song, providing a poetic feel. Overall, The Dream makes out to be a spectacular return of alt-J into the world of music, offering a peaceful haven for listeners with intense material to dwell on.