As they sheepishly confessed halfway through their largest ever show Alt-J couldn’t quite believe they were playing to an audience of 12,000 at 3Arena.
Their incredulity is understandable: the Leeds trio’s forte is noodling art-pop with folksy embellishments, a sound that asks you to imagine a world where Radiohead and Mumford and Sons spent an afternoon together in a recording studio (and managed not to strangle one another). What they do is not without its charms and yet can be furrow-browed and po-faced too, songs zig-zagging from poised and polished to difficult and droning in a finger-click.
The biggest problem was, never having imagined themselves as an arena rock band, now that they have achieved just this status, they seemed unsure to how best go about their job. At this level, a whiff pomp is more or less obligatory – Alt-J needed to strut about in larger than life fashion so that late-comers relegated to the Stygian fringes of the downstairs standing area (this reporter among them) had a chance to get caught up in the excitement.
But showmanship and pensive avant-rock do not sit comfortably together and you could see Alt-J visibly wrestling with their responsibility to put on a spectacle for the punters in the cheap seats. Judged strictly on the music, the performance was absolutely meticulous, tunes dipping and weaving precisely as on the record (their second album, This Is All Yours, has just been released; the first, An Awesome Wave, won the 2012 Mercury Prize). However everything else fell short – the light show failed to distinguish between broodingly minimalist and straight forwardly underwhelming; between numbers the scrawny ensemble (augmented by a touring bassist) mumbled and sputtered in the fashion of stage-struck undergraduates at open mic night.
Alt-J have some good songs – several great ones, in fact. Still, their best loved tracks – the ones that prompt actual, non-ironic dancing and spontaneous selfie-snapping – can seem spectacularly average if you aren’t in the mood. Matilda, the ‘hit’ in the set, was every bit as dreary as you’d expect a song called Matilda to be; the roiling Fitzpleasure appeared to be going places until, for reasons known only to Alt–J, it transmogrified two thirds of the way through into a bleary Moby outtake.
You wonder whether, in a few years, it will seem absurd, to musicians and fanbase alike, that Alt-J were ever this big and if the band might not be happier downsizing to venues more appropriate to their oeuvre – music that rightly exists on its own terms and ought not be distracted by the sticky business of crowd-pleasing.