Album Review: Alt-J, 'This Is All Yours'

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alt j this is all yours
Alt-J, 'This Is All Yours' (© 2014 Atlantic Records.)

Are you more of a "lyrics person" or a "music person"? At The Current, we're usually split down the middle. I fall on the lyrics side of things. I think it's the English major in me that uses the lyrics of a song to "understand" music. Alt-J seem to be split down the middle, too, in their new album, This Is All Yours. And I don't mean that as a slight or to imply that the lyrics and music are both middling. I mean that the lyrics are both so important, and not important at all, to what makes up an Alt-J song.

Lyrics don't matter. They bring in penny whistles, recordings of chanting and birds and bugs, plus cello and viola. But, there's also synth, spacey sound effects, samples of Miley Cyrus' song "4x4", and the beat defiantly finds time to drop. There are tracks on the record that don't contain a single word. And, often times the lyrics are so difficult to understand that they sound like staccato nonsense words that are in the mix simply to add another layer of sound. Lead vocalist Joe Newman's warbly falsetto makes it hard to discern words as he picks and chooses his own speech pattern, stopping and starting words to fit the flow of music. He seems to follow Radiohead's Thom Yorke's school of thought: Yorke repeated the phrase "the rain drops" 47 times in "Sit Down Stand Up" just because it sounded right to him.

Lyrics matter. Yes, you can enjoy Alt-J without knowing the lyrics, but you are missing out on some witty and smart moments. These guys are the Wes Anderson of music: they are self-referential ("Bloodflood pt. II" references "Fitzpleasure" and an older song, "353"); they allude to poets, books, movies and photographs; and they know how to twist the mundane into a crafty turn of phrase, e.g. "Ain't shady baby/ I'm hot like the prodigal son".

I'm not going to lie — I geeked out on these lyrics. As a lover of words, I fell down the rabbit hole of reference points as soon as I pressed play on This Is All Yours. Below you'll find a (hopefully) helpful guide to (nearly) everything referenced. Do you need to understand everything that Alt-J are saying to enjoy the new record? Of course not. Does it make you appreciate the album more? Possibly. If nothing else, it just shows how much is bouncing around in the minds of Alt-J. Plus, who doesn't want to listen to the sexiest song about Alien that has ever been written?

Alt-J Reference Guide

*The numbers below align with the track number of the song on the album that each reference appears in.

1 - Escher: trippy artist (staircases to nowhere)

1 - "I pop clips": reference to Wu-Tang Clan song "Protect Ya Neck", this whole song is pretty much a cover of the song. So, now you know Alt-J digs some Wu-Tang.

2/3 - Nara: Ancient City in Japan that contains eight temples, shrines and ruins in its Primeval Forest. There's also this story that its name means "flatten" because some soldiers were forced to trample the hills and flatten the land.

3 - "Blue is the warmest color": Are this guys talking about that movie? Probably.

3 - "Petrol blues": A Rolling Stones song that's a conversation to the president saying, "Dude, things are bad if it cost this much to fill up my tank". But also, that's the year where we coined "Arab Spring", so it might have something to do with war, too.

3 - "saut dans le vide": literally, "jump into the void". Also, it's the name of an awesome photo by Yves Klein, where a well dressed man looks like he's about to pancake himself onto the sidewalk.

3 - Aslan: The main character in the Chronicles of Narnia. He's the talking lion who's the King of Narnia. According to some people, he's there to represent Jesus.

3 - Bovay: Seems like a reference to Alvan Earle Bovay, one of the founders of the Republican Party.

3 - Alabama: A couple people seem to think Alabama gets a nod because it is one of the most conservative states and it passed a law banning gay rights in 2005.

3 - "unpin your butterflies, Russian": Butterflies are a transgender symbol. And there have been protests in Russia due to its anti-GLBTQ policies.

3 - "deer in Nara": Deer are highly regarded and respected in Nara.

4 - crisp packet: that's just British for a chip bag, yo.

4 - Minpin and Borrower: These are both allusions to books about little people. Minpins is a book by Roald Dahl about little people who live in a tree. The Borrowers is a book by Mary Norton, and is also about tiny people.

4 - "Lou, Lou, let the cover girls sing!": Pretty sure this is a shout out to Lou Reed's song "Walk on the Wild Side" and the line, "and the colored girls go".

4 - "like a cat rolls around": Apparently cats roll on the ground when they want to mate. Or to be cute.

5 - "like the prodigal son": Referencing a parable from Luke 15 all about God's forgiveness. But I think this is just a play on words. A way of wittifying "I'm hot like the sun".

5 - Left Hand Free: This whole song is either about two people in a gunfight or sex. Probably not a gunfight.

5 - Colt: A gun people used in the Wild West.

5 - N-E-O, O-M-G, Gee whiz: Kid slang for whoa.

7 - Rule Britannia: It's a British patriotic song that comes from the poem "Rule, Britannia!"

7 - "Bright ideas hide in caves": I'm a dork and think this is probably a reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Where the Greek philosopher says that most people are forever in the dark and think the shadows are real life. Email me and we can discuss it further.

8 - "Butterflies and needles": Basically saying I've got butterflies in my stomach and I'm on pins and needles. They are nervously in love.

8 - chain mail: let's go with the medieval armor that soldiers wore, and not the stuff your mom and people you don't like send to your inbox.

8 - "I'm a female rebel": Who's that cool chick they're sampling? Dude, it's Miley Cyrus from the song "4x4". She also has a writing credit for the track. I think they are buds.

8 - "I'll hum the song the soldiers sing/as they march outside our window": I'm probably reading too much into this, but I think it might be a reference that we're back in Nara and those are the soldiers flattening the land.

8 - "une immense Esperance a traversé la terre/ une immense Esperance a traversé ma peur": It means "A great hope has crossed the earth/ a great hope has crossed my fear". It's a quote from the poem L'espoir en Dieu (Hope in God) from Alfred de Musset. And it's been quoted in the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley's Lover — which is a pretty solid book, and Lawrence was a pretty lewd dude. You should check out the titles to some of his other books.

9 - What's going on with all these voices and why do some of them sound familiar: Great question! That's the Alt-J's Joe Newman trading off words with Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas and Marika Hackman.

9 - Iris: and the lyrics that follow are taken from the book, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, by John Bayley. It's all about Bayley's time with his wife Iris before she lost her memories to Alzheimer's. I've never read it but I have seen the movie Notebook, and it sounds a lot like that.

10 - John Hurt: A pretty great actor. This song is all about the movie Alien. And I have to say, it is probably the sexiest song about Alien that has ever been written.

10 - Tetris: I tried to find some connection between John Hurt and Tetris, and I can't really find one. Maybe the guys watched Alien around the same time they used to play a lot of Tetris. What? I don't know everything.

10 - "chest bursts like John Hurt": Spoiler Alert - John Hurt dies in Alien and it's because a freakin' alien BURSTS FROM HIS CHEST CAVITY!

10 - Jeremiah: This is another biblical reference. A lot of people seem to think it's where the Bible talks about UFOs and aliens.

11 - red-billed quelea: The most common bird in the world. They used this bird's call all over the album.

12 - "Bloodflood pt.II": Hey, what's the deal? Where's part 1? That was on their previous record, An Awesome Wave.

12 - "Dead in the middle of the C-O-double-M-O-N": Quoting themselves. This lyric appears in "Fitzpleasure," from An Awesome Wave. This was itself a reference to rapper Big Punisher's song "Twinz". That is pretty meta.

12 - "Mandela Boys": Still quoting "Fitzpleasure". The Mandela Boys were a gang in the town the Alt-J guys grew up in and were afraid of.

12 - "Silent knife, unholy knife": I originally thought this was a scary take on the Christmas song, but it's also an allusion to another Alt-J song called, "353".

12 - Quelea, Quelea: That bird again from "Pusher"

13 - Bovay: Another reference to the founder of the Republican Party

13 - Alabama: Another reference to the conservative state

13 - "mane of my lover": Maybe another reference to Aslan, the talking lion.

13 - Hidden Track! I wish every band would do this. It's a very Alt-J-ified version of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day".

What do you think of the album? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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