The ambitious British indie crooners embrace an American sound while confronting crypto and Covid on their enjoyable fourth album.
Perhaps Alt-J don’t get enough respect for their creative promiscuity. Joe Newman’s choirboy croon is so distinctive, often cooing an incomprehensible plaint while sparsely arrayed instruments cluck in sorrowful sympathy, that their songs’ ambitions can be unfairly overlooked. There’s nothing as startling on this fourth album as 2018’s impressive sally into hip-hop, Deadcrush remix, but The Dream proves how good they’ve become at seeding American music such as blues, funk and house into their typically English choral, classical and folky forms. Perhaps this is a largely commercial decision – it’s the bluesy Left Hand Free that got them into the US charts, rather than delicate delights Taro or Tessellate.
Either way, The Dream is another enjoyable stroll around the band’s latest curiosity shop. Crypto cowboys get called out on perky Hard Drive Gold, and there’s some extravagant wordplay on U&ME. Yet death also hangs over the album, with murder ballad Happier When You’re Gone and the intense Get Better, one of their most painfully direct and emotional songs yet, about watching someone slip slowly away in Covid times. Technically proficient, beautifully sung and lyrically acute, it exemplifies what The Dream does so well.