All Grown UpThe Triumphant Return of Aly & AJ

Aly & AJ (Photo credit: Amanda Charchian)

The title of Aly & AJ’s first full-length album in 14 years, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, leaves convention behind. Instead of one of their traditionally short and vague record titles—Into the Rush, Insomniatic—this title resembles one you’d see on the cover of a poetry book, setting the tone for an album that’s about finding yourself, exploring the world, and seeking love and connection in a world where we’re isolated because of the pandemic.

Much of the music focuses on the Southern California sunshine, the freedom of the desert, and the wide, open landscapes that dominated their childhood, giving the album a modern twist on a ’70s feel. From the first track on, there’s a keen yearning to leave old ways behind: “All the pretty places/ Pull us away from where the pain is/ These open skies/ Leaving the past behind/ I would for all the pretty places.” This is an immediate departure from the music the duo released nearly two decades ago, with lyrics that largely spoke to an unknown other and romantic interest. And while many of the songs on the new album speak to someone, the presence of “we” and “us” is also strong. Sending a message about what they need as they grow and change has become more important than figuring out how to get a romantic partner’s attention or affection.

On their 2007 album, Insomniatic, the pair sang about chaotic love—troubles and heartbreak and new romance—keeping them awake all night. In the song “Flatter,” the sisters sing, “I will admit, if you admit it/ It’s harder than we both thought/ It’s easier to fall apart.” While this album considers similar themes, there’s an evident maturity in their new music, one which strays from the more cookie-cutter pop and rock that came after their Disney days. Now they’re not simply singing about the ebbs and flows of relationships; they’re singing about mental health, rediscovering and accepting yourself, and leaving behind the people and things that no longer serve you. They’re charting a decade-long journey in a single album, from being teenagers in the spotlight to becoming two adults, making their mark in Hollywood. Both AJ, 30, and Aly, 32, have dipped in and out of the entertainment business, but now they’re stepping into the light—both the world’s and their own—on their terms.

Songs like “Symptom of Your Touch” explore falling back into old habits and relationships we know are bad for us, but “Listen!!!” “Personal Cathedrals,” and “Don’t Need Nothing” (the song from which the album title was taken) are self-worth anthems, offering up subtle but firm reminders that we can pull ourselves out of the chaos. “I’m feelin’ like I’m a hostage here/ It’s clear something went missing/ I might be lost but I know my way out,” they sing on “Listen!!!” Similarly, in “Personal Cathedrals,” the sisters affirm that they’ve learned they don’t have to be anywhere they don’t want to be, something they didn’t necessarily have control over in the early stages of their career: “Let’s leave this party right now/ We never liked these people/ Cowboys and hopeless crowns/ Spinning us all around/ Looking us up and down.”

Throughout these songs, this certainty of identity carries the women toward an intuitive knowing: Darkness might exist and disrupt their lives, but they’re capable of dispelling it. “Don’t Need Nothing” perfectly highlights that attitude: “You know the devil’s never far behind/ But he isn’t welcome here so don’t bother, don’t bother/ A touch of the beat/ Gets you up on your feet/ Gets you out and then into the sun.” Aly & AJ also sing about knowing their place in the world and creating sacred spaces that allow them to rejuvenate. “I think AJ and I needed to take a step away from music to really become the artists that we are today,” Aly explained in a recent interview with American Songwriter. “What I love about this record is that we don’t just touch on the typical makeup/breakup situations,” AJ continued. “For Aly and I, it’s all about everyday life and diving into mental health awareness, abuse, and what it feels like to want to escape or get out of a relationship that you can’t leave or just pack up your bags and head to a different town.”

Ultimately, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun asks us important questions while reminding us that destinations are always shifting.

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Aly & AJ do an excellent job of creating a summer sound and feeling, even when the stories being told are painful. On “Paradise,” the sisters sing: “Went through the fields and walked through the water/ To find a place unlike our own/ Cut through the trees and pushed even further/ If we’ve arrived how would we know?/ Would you say we made it to our paradise, paradise?/ Will we know that it’s paradise?” The alternative-pop sound can be spun around in the summer heat as we also ask ourselves existential questions about building the life we want. When you’ve been figuring out your path, how do you know when you’ve reached your destination? Of course, as a pandemic project largely worked on during the last year, the album also touches on trials and tribulations many of us can relate to as things slowed down and became a “new normal.” “Slow Dancing” explores a bittersweet discovery of what truly matters—the simple things. “I’ve never had this much time on my hands/ Move the kitchen table out to the lawn/ Roll up the rug the stereo’s on.”

It’s about changing things around to feel something: “It was like we were meant to make this music regardless of the world falling into the abyss because it was the record we were always born to make,” the duo said in a press release for the album. “That’s what music is all about though at the end of the day…The way it makes you feel, the memories you associate with it, the healing it brings, the celebration a chorus delivers you when your windows are rolled down and life feels perfect for that one fleeting moment. The feeling of getting back out into the sun.” Ultimately, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun asks us important questions while reminding us that destinations are always shifting. When listened to as a whole, the album feels like being in a liminal space, right before arriving somewhere you’ve been longing to be. It’s the feeling of being bathed in possibility instead of uncertainty, for at least a minute, and waiting to see what happens next.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that this is Aly & AJ’s first album in 14 years. (05/25/2021, 9:39 a.m.)

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by Elly Belle
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Elly Belle is a writer and digital media strategist who lives and works in Brooklyn. They’re passionate about advocacy, culture, media, and bringing stories about restorative justice and healing to the spotlight. Their words can be found in Teen Vogue, Thrillist, InStyle, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, BUST magazine, and other outlets. Follow them on Twitter @literelly.