The Dream

alt-J

The Dream

The body count on alt-J’s fourth album is high. At least three songs portray a death, another (“Losing My Mind”) explores the psyche of a serial killer and “Get Better” is an intensely moving depiction of grief. That said, The Dream also delights in the pleasures of drinking Coke (“Bane”), instant attraction (“Powders”) and getting wasted at festivals (“U&ME”). “If you want to move people, it’s with storytelling,” singer/guitarist Joe Newman tells Apple Music. “You want to tell the best story, and that is by giving people both sides of the coin.”
Here, that storytelling is set to characteristically adventurous music. The Leeds-formed trio began working on the album in January 2020, but as the music industry’s momentum stalled under the pandemic, they found they had more time than usual to explore their vision. Together, they created improbable tessellations between psychedelic folk and Chicago house, pneumatic art-rock and Stravinsky, and Jimi Hendrix and Cormac McCarthy, binding those patterns with iron-strong hooks. “We’ve always seen ourselves as cowboy writers,” says Newman. “We don’t know how to write a pop song, but we know that we have catchy ideas. So we just sew them together, regardless of whether it makes much sense structurally. Maybe in this album, we’re also mastering the craft of writing more traditionally.” Let Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton take you through the album, track by track.
“Bane” Gus Unger-Hamilton: “It’s a microcosm of the whole album, in that it’s sort of three tracks in one. It’s got very catchy riffs; it’s got deep, dark, musical, experimental sections; it’s got a big chorus; it’s got the whole swimming pool thing [the song’s setting]. It just felt like a meal in itself.” Joe Newman: “My first connection with being successful at something was swimming. I used to swim competitively when I was really young. So I think I have a lot of strong connections with chlorinated pools. That’s maybe where it starts. The song is sort of about fizzy drinks and being addicted to drinking Coke.”
“U&ME” JN: “We got our front-of-house engineer Lance to send us some sound-check jams [he’d recorded], and this one song took us all by surprise. We’d completely forgotten about it, and it had a really strong guitar riff and the chorus was already there. I’d come back from Australia several weeks before. I went to a day festival on 1 January 2020 and they were all getting on it at 11 in the morning. It was really fucking hot and everyone was just pilled up. It was this severe clear day and we were in a velodrome. So the whole space is this interesting shape, and I had a lot of fun. I was writing 70% from that day and then turning it into this darker direction where they actually end up in someone’s back garden, off their face. It was written before the pandemic. So you reflect on it, and it’s almost the benchmark of where you want to get back to.”
“Hard Drive Gold” GU-H: “The song is about a 15-year-old boy who becomes a millionaire overnight trading cryptocurrency. It feels like we’ve been living through this sort of crypto gold rush, and it’s an interesting time. It’s a fun thing to write a song about. I can think of several books I read as a kid that were to do with children becoming incredibly rich. It’s almost like a classic theme.” JN: “The chord structure and melody came so quickly that I had to leave the room and record it, and within the space of maybe half an hour, I’d written this rough structure. I played it to the band, and they responded just as quickly. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of the song and just let it gather momentum itself. I think that was true for [2014 single] ‘Left Hand Free’, and it certainly was true for ‘Hard Drive Gold’.”
“Happier When You’re Gone” JN: “In Australia, I was reading Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, and fell in love with that whole West Texas narrative and the soul-searching in that environment. I weaved in this narrative where it’s the other side of the story from ‘Hey Joe’, the Jimi Hendrix song. Instead of Joe going to shoot his old lady, the old lady is saying, ‘I’m tired of your shit. I’m tired of your temper. I’m tired of this domestic hell that I live in.’ The chorus, ‘The smell of burning cattle hangs on the westerly,’ that’s based on an experience I had. My dad chose a great time to travel up to Scotland at the turn of the century when the foot-and-mouth [outbreak] was happening. We were going through Northumbria and there were lines and lines of dead cattle having been burnt. The smell was horrific.”
“The Actor” GU-H: “‘The Actor’ is kind of an imagined retelling of John Belushi’s death at Chateau Marmont.” JN: “The idea of following a struggling actor who subsidises his dream by becoming a coke dealer is kind of the idea of the American dream and excess and danger in the ’80s—and all of the stages that cocaine production goes through to end up in the hotel that epitomises Hollywood grandeur. When we were producing it, it was very guitar-heavy, but the greatest discovery was this arpeggiated synth that created this intoxicating vibe. It reinforces this whole ’80s, Reagan, drug-excess world.”
“Get Better” GU-H: “It’s basically a poem. The music is really lovely, but I think it is secondary to the lyrics in this particular instance.” JN: “It started with a song I sang to my partner, who was having period pains. I was just cheering her up and she decided to record it, and that would later turn into the chorus of ‘Get Better’. Then, in lockdown, I started writing about a couple having a connection with Elliott Smith and listening to his music. It gave birth to the idea that maybe one of the couple has passed away and that he’s holding on to all of these moments that they had. Being in lockdown, that inspired the whole process of complete loss of control. I’d gathered a lot of little vignettes on losing people or grief. This was a perfect song to thread those things in.”
“Chicago” JN: “It’s two songs stitched together. There was once a plan for the verses section to be put into ‘Happier When You’re Gone’, and then the Chicago clubhouse vibe is a jam that we had in Chicago. It’s one of the songs where I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re still really doing interesting work.’ I think we’ve opened a window there. There was a lyric I had for a long time: ‘I can see it rain on the town over.’ I always like the imagery of being somewhere at such a distance, you can see a whole town, and you can see a weather system affecting that town, but you are not being affected—how dramatic and poignant that is. I then followed this narrative of a brother and a sister hiking, and something happening and one of them falls to their death, but you are not sure whether it’s being witnessed or being experienced.”
“Philadelphia” JN: “It’s the last moments of someone who’s dying in an alleyway. They’re very, very discombobulated and they don’t really know what’s going on and they’re kind of reminiscing, but at the same time, their heartbeat is slowing down and slowing down and they finally succumb.” GU-H: “When Joe showed me the first ideas, I was like, ‘It sounds quite Beatles-y.’ We thought we’d lean into that. So we hired a Höfner Violin Bass and got a friend of ours, Will Gardner, who arranged all the strings on the album. We gave him this brief which was kind of ‘John Barry, James Bond meets Sergeant Pepper, Abbey Road vibes’, which I think he really achieved really, really well.”
“Walk a Mile” JN: “I had some Polish builders that built my studio last year. They were really nice guys and were like, ‘Do you like plants?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you like weed plant?’ ‘Yeah, sure.’ The next day they turned up with a weed plant. They told me how to look after it and eventually I had the weed. I was smoking a bit with them and was writing this guitar riff that was one line and then there was loads of different melody variations and I recorded it all on one voice memo. I was like, ‘I like all of these melody variations.’ So I just decided it could be a song. So it’s very simple lyrically, but very diverse melodically.” GU-H: “I was in a barbershop group at school. I got two of my old barbershop guys to come and sing with me, and that’s what starts the track. It’s fun to realise that we still haven’t reached the edges of our musical interests and influences and backgrounds. There are still things in our lives that we can tap into, even four albums in.”
“Delta” JN: “We just liked the idea of ‘I’m not a praying man, but I’ll kneel to that.’” GU-H: “Which your mum found hilarious.” JN: “She thought it was very Carry On… like, ‘Oooh, I’m not a praying man, but I’ll kneel to that.’ For me, the story was this person experiencing this extraterrestrial thing, this bright light descending onto the marshes of the Mississippi Delta or something. They just fall to their knees, because it’s like a spiritual awakening.”
“Losing My Mind” JN: “It’s probably one of the most overt and unapologetic comments on the really dark side of the human condition and what you can see in human behaviour that is so far removed from what you know as a civilised person. It’s a serial killer who kills young children. It’s not very nice, but I suppose I’ve always been comfortable talking about it because my father was a probation officer and he worked for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which is connecting all areas of the justice sector and social care and psychiatry into understanding sex offenders so that they can be treated. I was always fascinated by his commitment to keeping people safe by re-evaluating how to look after people who are afflicted with these issues.”
“Powders” GU-H: “The idea for the skit in the middle came from a Malcolm Gladwell podcast. He was talking about musicians forgetting the words to their own songs. They had ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in it a lot, and in the middle of it, Elvis does this spoken-word thing. I felt like this song had this potential to try something like that, particularly due to the themes in it—kind of teenage love in America. Joe went away and worked on this little script, which Thom [Green, drummer] and his girlfriend acted out in the song.” JN: “The subject matter is a good distance away from the dark stuff. It’s about the spark when you see someone from across the room and you’re like, ‘I want to get to know them tonight.’ It’s a nice way to end it, hopeful.”

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