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alt-J The Dream review – delicately hinged on the cusp of reality and fantasy

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Featured image: George Muncey

A band known for weaving an intricate web between reality and fantasy, naming their fourth album, The Dream, seems only natural. Almost ten years ago, their debut album, An Awesome Wave, catapulted the band to success and earned them a Mercury Prize. The line-up remains largely unchanged with three of the original members are still propelling the band onward and upward.

Consisting of Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Sonny Green, and Joe Newman, they were also re-joined by longtime producer Charlie Andrew. Make no mistake though, the band’s sound isn’t a carbon copy of their earlier material. It’s an album that is delicately hinged on the cusp of reality and fantasy.

Photography: George Muncey

Before their triumphant return, Alt-J’s half-a-decade break has only enhanced their skills and their eye for artistic detail. For every dream, there is a nightmare, and this is something this trio knows all too well. Much like the Japanese art of filling cracks with gold, alt-J recognises the cracks in our society and fills them in through song. Perhaps most literally with ‘Hard Drive Gold’, where they dive into our current crypto obsession. The repetition of “don’t be afraid to make, to make money, boy”, drives home the importance we place on wealth. Its optimistically upbeat melody led by keys almost masks its more sinister subject. 

Their opening track, ‘Bane’ sets the scene with the intense velocity of a shook-up bottle of cola and their usual veracity. The sound of opening the bottle is topped off with a classical choir chanting about selling one’s soul. Always executing the unexpected elements, it never feels gimmicky but draws attention to the message behind its use. The opera singers on ‘Philadelphia’ is another faultless example. 

One of the finest tracks on the record is ‘Get Better’, due to its songwriting and unassuming nature. It’s even been described by Newman as a “big step forward” in his songwriting. Centring on the loss of a loved one due to the pandemic, it isn’t actually from Newman’s own experience, rather his wife suffering from period pain. This origin doesn’t make it any less real or emotionally heartfelt, even Newman has stated “it’s emotionally the most honest song I’ve written”. Propelled by the soft strumming of a guitar, his words are left to take centre stage.

Their fictional inspiration also includes a newfound true crime obsession. So subtle you may miss it in ‘Happier When You’re Gone’, which centres around a woman who murders her husband. There is also a reimagined retelling of John Belushi’s death at Chateau Marmont that can be heard on ‘The Actor’, also referenced in Netflix’s, Inventing Anna. The latter is a closer cry to their earlier releases with a grittier guitar and electronic elements. Similarly, the instrumental section on ‘Chicago’ is thoroughly addictive and the pulsing beat is wonderfully adrenaline-inducing.

The Dream Album Cover
Credit: alt-J

Although, this isn’t a band choosing to hide behind a mask of other people’s stories. The tangible life stage of fatherhood has happened for two members, which could explain the fine line between life and death. It’s a theme running adjacent to dreams and reality. The former is perfectly executed in ‘Losing My Mind’, where we can hear the desperation, further soundtracked with a rolling beat.

Reminiscing on days gone by, ‘U&ME’ reminds the band of their youth in the music video, we see them (actors, actually) skateboarding. Halfway through, they up the ante with a higher dose of cowbell and slick guitar riffs – their chemistry and growth as a band is undeniable. 

The closing track, ‘Powders’ saves one of the most powerful topics of all for last. A meet-cute between a boy and a girl, perhaps reminds us that love can conquer all. Newman repeating, “I’m your man, I’m your man”, is a final radiation of positivity. It’s soft with a slight twang of guitar and tap of drums to act as their last hurrah. 

Make no mistake though, alt-J may be drawn to evoking feelings of nostalgia, but their vision is firmly pointed towards the future. Despite only sharing a shred of their personal experiences before, this album has unlocked another side of this unostentatious trio. Whether it’s one year or five when this band returns, it’ll be when they’re ready to explore a new story, and it’ll certainly be worth hearing.


Sat 07 May – Glasgow Barrowland

Mon 09 May – Leeds O2 Academy

Fri 13 May – Manchester O2 Apollo

Wed 18 May – London O2 Brixton Academy

Sun 22 May – Dublin Olympia Theatre

Wed 25 May – Belfast Telegraph Building

Fri 27 May – Birmingham O2 Academy

alt-J The Dream is available to listen to on a range of platforms.

Tickets for alt-J’s UK and Ireland tour are out now.

Follow alt-J: Spotify | Youtube | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | TikTok | Website

About the author / 

Camilla Whitfield

Fourth Year BA English with Overseas Study | Music Editor | Manchester & Leipzig | Music & Gig Enthusiast

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