It’s maybe too early to predict just how far Alt-J are going to be catapulted into the stratosphere following their Mercury win but tonight, performing to a packed-out Ballroom, they feel like a sensible victor.
When frontman Joe Newman murmurs through geometric love-song ‘Tesselate’, the utterance ‘three points, where two lines meet’ feels like a fitting metaphor for a band who don’t so much embrace different sounds as Pritt-stick them together into a beautifully sculptured lump. The foreboding piano and a cryptic loop reminiscent of The XX‘s beautifully isolated ‘Islands’ is gripping, as lyrics both sensual and sadistic mesh together: ‘Yes they’ll nosh the love away, but it’s fair to say/You will still haunt me.’
During their quiet, introspective moments Alt-J share cosy a capella harmonies not unlike Fleet Foxes or Local Natives – a well-worn path to pleasing critics, perhaps. But, on tracks like ‘Fitzpleasure’, they take the formula and send an electric current right through it, with Newman’s lyrics bursting out his throat with the ferocity of a man at an exorcism.
It’s their reluctance to be pigeonholed which remains Alt-J‘s greatest weapon. While ‘Interlude I’ and ‘Bloodflood’ lack the resonance of the band’s bigger songs, they are blissful and intimate in a small venue like this, though that could get lost in bigger, loftier spaces. Elsewhere, ‘Breezeblocks’ is a bawdy sing-a-long cloaking sinister undertones.
Strangely, when the band choose to cover Kylie Minogue‘s ‘Slow’, there’s a moment of clarity unlike any other tonight. Maybe it’s because the lyrics aren’t dissimilar to those in ‘Tesselate’ – it doesn’t feel like foreign territory. Or maybe there’s something in how comfortable Alt-J are with sounding like a pop act, something much of this year’s shortlist tried so hard to avoid.