A fascinating cul-de-sac in Damon Albarn’s musical journey (that is not meant patronisingly – Albarn’s commitment to trying new things is wholly admirable, even if, or perhaps because, the results are variable), this self-titled standalone album brought together one of his most exciting ever lineups. The result is a rich patchwork of styles and dynamics interestingly packaged in a hip-hop aesthetic by producer Danger Mouse. That production decision sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but the real head-scratcher here is in recruiting Tony Allen, one of the best drummers in the world, and then barely using him. He doesn’t even play on half the tracks. When he does appear, you both hear how extraordinary he is (he hits about two drums on “History Song” and is the most melodic thing on the track) and how under-used – so often he’s not even there, and when he is he mostly potters around being little more than a metronome. As good as the record is, it feels like an opportunity only half taken.
A band that clearly have something but seem intent on undermining themselves. For a start, they named themselves “Alt-J”. Presumably there was some kind of bet that you can achieve success no matter what clunking inanity you choose to be known by. More importantly, the choice to give the album a compressed techno production feels somewhat forced, a sort of a priori decision to be unusual rather than an organic creative process that ended up that way. The drumming especially sounds so synthetic as to make no difference. And then in composition: on “Tesselate”, for example, one of the album’s strongest tracks, the slick montage of effects and characterful lyrics build up to a kind of drop: “let’s tessellate:” and then nothing happens, and not in a good way. Six bars of nothing. And what’s up with the guy’s voice? He can sing pleasantly enough so why does he choose to spend most of the time singing through his nose? A debut album of frustratingly dented promise.