Alt-J are the anti-Oasis, a band so far removed from the sweary, boozy, druggy, football-loving contours of lad-rock as to verge on parody. They recently graduated from the same university, three with Fine Art degrees, one in Eng Lit. They play twisty songs with esoteric references to geometric decorative arts (“Tessellate”) and southeast Asian flora (“Taro”). When they won the Mercury Prize last week they didn’t swagger to the podium to give an over-refreshed “speech” glorying in their triumph. Instead the Cambridge quartet thanked their parents.
Their show at the Electric Ballroom came four days after their Mercury victory. A more hedonistic brand of rocker would still have been flying high from the experience, in every sense. But Alt-J were so diffident about being judged to have made the year’s best British album that they didn’t even mention it. The closest they came to exultation was singer Joe Newman’s coy statement that it was “a really special gig”. Otherwise the only act of celebration was the cake brought on stage to mark drummer Thom Green’s 27th birthday.
They opened with the first track from their debut, An Awesome Wave. A supple keyboard motif rang out, beefed up by drums and guitars, while Newman delivered a lugubrious lead vocal. Behind them a neon triangle glowed: their actual name is a mathematical symbol generated by pressing “alt” and “j” on an Apple computer keyboard. “Triangles are my favourite shape,” Newman sang in “Tessellate”, a fidgety number about trigonometry and sex, like swots rewriting the Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1” as alt-pop.
Cleverness and catchiness went together. “Fitzpleasure” found them at their proggiest, combining close-harmony singing, rumbling bass and time changes. At the other extreme “Breezeblocks” used ultra-hooky choruses to relate a sinister tale of sexual obsession and murder. The best musicianship came with the imaginative oriental theme that guitarist Gwil Sainsbury added to set finale “Taro”. The decoration was neatly applied and never over-abundant.
The set was brief at 50 minutes. Its low-key mood appeared to be intentional. The Mercury Prize has a history of picking winners whose careers subsequently capsize. Alt-J’s refusal to indulge in triumphalism may have robbed the gig of a sense of occasion but it also suggested that their true focus wisely lies elsewhere. The sensible foursome are here for the long haul.