Most artists will tell you that the album retrospective show can be something on a poison chalice.
Revelling in nostalgia without condemning yourself to dinosaur status, and celebrating the past without undermining your present are not easy balances to strike. Labels hire teams of people to sell the notion that a band is new or current, regardless of how long in the tooth they may be, and to shine a spotlight on the passing of time is counterintuitive to the age-old nonsensical pillar of music promotion: new=good and old=bad.
Alt-J, however, arrive at Brixton Academy armed with an album which, from its very inception, was defined by its sense of agelessness.
When An Awesome Wave was released in 2012, there was something irrefutably modern about the sound, from a band who took their name from a computer keyboard shortcut. A Mercury Prize win ensued (*the* archetypal Mercury Prize winner, for us of a certain generation), along with the burden of sky-high expectations and the dreaded fanfare from the best-thing-since-Radiohead brigade.
Taking to the stage as a trio a decade later, the creeping, noodled guitars of ‘Intro’ build to pave the way for Joe Newman’s opaque vocal, accompanied by the murky thud of a bass-synth.
It’s a long-dead device to fill a live writeup with the news that an audience clapped after a song… but, as the brooding tension of ‘Intro’ halts for the a cappella harmonies of ‘The Ripe & Ruin’, the wave of love from the venue is beyond celebratory: a reception fitting for a decade-long wait to see these album deep cuts.
Staying true to An Awesome Wave’s order of tracks brings with it a refreshing restructure of their setlist, away from the standardised bottom heavy, hits-at-the-end formation. Anthems such as ‘Tesselate’ and ‘Breezeblocks’ can bask in all of their contextualised glory when bookended by their original pairing interludes, rather than squeezed between other singles in the bangers section of a set.
The twisted acoustic guitar of ‘Matilda’ bleeds seamlessly into the vulnerable and minimalist ‘Ms’, and despite their perch inside raised cinematic glass walls above the stage (think David Blaine stunt meets IMAX cinema screen), the 3-piece provoke a sincere sense of intimacy within the vast south London hall.
A decade old it may be, but this is an album which has retained its freshness and sense of adventure, perhaps aided by Alt-J’s singularity and absence from any particular scene. When choppy landfill indie – for example – died a death, it took with it a whole class of artists who were linked to the movement. Referentially, An Awesome Wave was always an ageless creation. Traditional folk sensibilities were distorted with crisp electronica, with Newman’s lyrics paying homage to cultural touchstones that were far from current, even in 2012: American Psycho, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Luc Besson’s 1994 film Léon, to name a few.
Seminal albums such as this are so much more than footnotes on a discography. They penetrate the lives of fans and become pieces of cultural furniture that exist within their psyche; and hearing each of these tracks roll into one another in their original order provokes a transformative sense of familiarity.
Perhaps there is some validity in the cynicism that often afflicts album retrospective shows, especially whilst an artist is trying to promote new music concurrently. But Alt-J’s performance tonight has been bigger than a concert, it’s felt like a gift for a sea of people who hold this album very dear to their hearts.