Tracing Covid Grief in alt-J’s new single, 'Get Better'
Editor-in-Chief Alice Graham explores the release.
British indie rock heroes alt-J have released the second single from their forthcoming album, The Dream.
The band’s last studio album was 2017’s Relaxer, and thanks to lockdown it was the song U&ME, released in September this year, that marked their long-awaited return.
The first release from their upcoming album U&ME is a woozy ode to hedonism and togetherness, simmering with euphoria, percussion and energy. But this week alt-J have returned with the second single from their album, and it strikes a different chord entirely.
Get Better is a gentle meditation on grief and heartache in the context of Covid-19. With its brittle vocal layering, frosted acoustic chords and soft folk undertones, it is a beautiful sound to usher in the darker days.
Newman’s tender opening lyrics situate the song in the liminal space between what was once there – the certainty of life, sleeping and singing – and what may soon be gone. He sings: “Hallelujah, I'm listening to a recording of you sleeping next to me / A cappella, I'm listening to you cover Elliot Smith's Angeles”. These lines are followed by the heart-wrenching, low-spoken: “It's these times I'll need if you go”.
It is with such delicate, character-driven lyrics that alt-J have captured the desperation and absurdity at the heart of covid grief. Newman sings of birthday cards smuggled into the ICU, of the underfunding of frontline workers, of the idle hope that one day the toilet will flush in the night to sound the return of his partner to bed. Get Better evokes a pain, a heaviness that is familiar to so many of its listeners in light of the past two years.
The chorus pleads: “Get better my darling, I know you will”. But as the song continues its certainty dissipates, and the line “I know you will” slips into the depleted iteration “I hope you will”. It is with this simple modification of the chorus that the song sinks from faith into bereavement.
In the outro, this line mutates further as the lyrics are dissolved into a voice recording of a woman saying, “Get better” and Newman replying: “I know I will”. Subtle orchestral strings and horns swell behind this vocal layering, and the song closes on a bittersweet note, nodding gently to the tides of grief.
To write a song about subject matter as sensitive as illness in the wake of the pandemic requires a gentle hand. One of the ways lyricist Joe Newman navigates this conversation is by lacing a food motif throughout the lyrics of Get Better.
Granted, this might sound like an unusual approach; but in a very visceral way, food imagery encompasses domesticity, contentment and peace. First with “I’ll start the day with tiramisu / Raise a spoon to frontline workers” and then “Your Nutella, I'll keep it in the cellar / You were always a fan of that spread”, food-driven domestic familiarity is undercut by illness and mourning. In this way, the song wades through the painful move from the central figure’s home life with his partner to one without her.
Once his lover has passed, he seeks to replicate her presence in their home with the smell of home-baked bread. “You were the baker” Newman sings, “I’ll christen this new era with the smell of freshly baked bread”.
This is a moving symbolic choice in the context of the pandemic, as baking bread revealed itself as a global coping mechanism in early lockdown and banana bread has since established itself as a symbol of that time in cultural consciousness. This lyric evokes that same feeling of stillness, detachment and uncertainty that dominated Spring 2020. A feeling that is also true of the early days of grieving.
In both cases, the song suggests, we might seek to fill our lonely houses with the warm, familiar smell of bread. It is a powerful, deeply sensory image and an absolute testament to Newman’s lyrical skill.
The rest of the album is set for release on February 11th, and with the first two songs so different in tone and texture we are excited to hear what alt-J have in store.
Pre-order The Dream here.
Words by Alice Graham
Photo Credit: Rosie Matheson | LP Artwork | Stills from the animated video for Get Better, created by Hamburg-based pixel artist Stefanie Grunwald, available to watch here