Genre: Neo-Psychedelia, Indie Folk
Favorite Tracks: “Walk Away,” “Southern Sky,” “Gretel,” “Taking,” “Near,” “Bad Man,” “In My Arms,” “SugarHouse – Live”
If you’re looking for a peek behind the veil, dear readers, look no further: (Sandy) Alex G has my vote for artist of the decade. About as idyllic of a career progression as an indie artist can hope for in this day and age, the man born Alexander Giannascoli literally kicked off the decade on January 1st, 2010 with his first official, independently released full-length, RACE. Knocking around on various small-scale labels in the years following, consistently releasing word-of-mouth gems and amassing his own mythology all the while (ask anyone who went to North Philly’s Temple University and they’ll have their own “I was there” story involving catching a basement set), 2015 saw him land a major label vetting from Domino, which opened the floodgates—if you’ve been online the past four years, you’ve heard of Alex G. Now a sort of patron saint of bedroom artists with an exhaustive back catalogue of warped indie pop perfection, a vast majority of which solely exists on bootleg compilations, YouTube uploads, and filesharing, listening to HOUSE OF SUGAR feels like a victory lap from someone who’s already won—never for the worse, but often only for the good, not necessarily better.
Appropriately enough, Alex G’s eighth time around the merry-go-round bears the most striking similarities to the turn that preceded it: 2017’s ROCKET, which, for my money, closely follows 2012’s TRICK as his career highlight. Almost eerily similar in overall tonal construction and pacing, both records hit you with singles and surefire Spotify playlist cuts up top (“Southern Sky,” “Gretel” :: “Proud,” “Bobby”), surprise with an experimental and risk-taking middle (“Project 2,” “Sugar” :: “Horse,” “Brick”), and recapitulate with a series of more understated, but no less evocative, slower-paced cuts, practically tailor-made for the more discerning and dedicated fan (“In My Arms,” “Cow” :: “Powerful Man,” “Big Fish”). The comparisons don’t end there—HOUSE OF SUGAR sees Alex continue to explore the fascination with folk-friendly trappings he first officially tapped into on ROCKET, both in terms of musical stylings (“Southern Sky,” “Cow”) and a wide-eyed sense of pastoral wonder (“Lying in the grass under tangerine sky,” “Are we bound here to an echo tinted / Blue and green? / Let my memory run backwards / So together we may lie / I will remember the fire / In the southern sky”), in addition to a trademark ability to lull you into a nursery rhyme reverie before jolting you with an image slightly rotted at the seams (“What river runs deeper than this? Biting all fingernails, breaking all wrists / Breaking all wrists”). Even ostensible oddities, such as the instrumental, psychedelic beat tape cut “Project 2,” which has its genesis in the honestly rather bizarre amount of video game-indebted instrumentals that have quietly dropped over the years, and the live-recorded “SugarHouse,” whose chummy jazz combo jamming can be heard from deep cuts and well-known outings alike, fall into line with previously set patterns. All of this isn’t to say that anything on HOUSE OF SUGAR is subpar, quite the opposite in fact, but rather redolent in the mildly melancholic comfort of getting almost exactly what you expected.
That said, there are flashes of innovative brilliance throughout, which go a long way towards elevating the overall experience: even if this old dog is mostly sticking to the hits, there’s enough new tricks to further reify Alex G’s voice as one to pay attention to. Album opener “Walk Away” joins Lana Del Rey’s “Venice Bitch” as another surprisingly effortless slice of 2019 psychedelia, layered and fuzzy, wrapping you in a bleary blanket of mumbled vocals, cacophonous drums, a flipped-and-reversed guitar lick, and a piercing central lick that cuts through the mire, intensely familiar but impossible to place all at the same time. “Near” continues this concept of Animal Collective callback, an artificially looped vocal sample and a genuinely impressive and deceptively complex drum track feeling as if they would have fit right in on MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION. “Bad Man” wraps up this trifecta of unprecedented creativity, a beguiling combination of affected, Ween-reminiscent warped country twang, GarageBand hip hop production, and a motherfucker of a breakdown that’s the most joyous moment on the record as far as I’m concerned.
And then there’s “Sugar.” By far the most head-scratching offering on HOUSE OF SUGAR, the proceedings almost have the dire pomposity of drone metal, a somber pulse and militantly rhythmic piano riff tiptoeing around intimations of the martial. Bizarrely offset by the garbled, alien vocals, which are virtually indiscernible, it comes across as a sort of intended intermission, even though “Project 2” has ostensibly similar ambitions and came not two minutes before it. But whereas “Project 2” at least recontextualizes the record for its sonically different second half, “Sugar” halts the forward momentum. Thankfully, this is the only bona fide misstep on the album (although “Crime” is a bit of a shrugging denouement), even if it’s functional at worst. The rest of HOUSE OF SUGAR sticks with what it knows we’ll like. “Hope” updates Alex G’s increasing fascination with Americana with zany, freak folk frying, juxtaposing its uptick in energy with one of the more explicitly personal songs in his catalogue, detailing the death of a friend in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, currently wracked with one of the nation’s worst opiod epidemics. Meanwhile, “Southern Sky” easily soars to the rarefied air of mainstream crossover hits such as “Bobby” and “Proud,” while “Gretel” became a highlight of Alex G’s career as soon as it first hit airwaves as the debut HOUSE OF SUGAR single, all sugary vocal patches, painfully nostalgic synth palettes, and an earworm chorus that perfectly hits a note of bittersweet tenacity and perseverance, rounded out by the tear-jerking “In My Arms.”
I ended up seeing Alex G live at Amoeba Records in Hollywood the night HOUSE OF SUGAR dropped. With no frills or illusions of grandeur, he humbly launched from song-to-song over the course of a 35-minute set with no crowd work or interludes outside of saying “Thanks!” to the occasional compliment shouted from the crowd, nor was there all that much perceived pacing or progression in terms of what tracks from what albums were selected. Despite the generous length for a free record-release publicity event, you left Amoeba feeling like you just blinked and missed it. And despite nearly approaching the 30th spin on the album, there is a similar feeling of impermanence to HOUSE OF SUGAR, more likely to send a particular melody or lyric to get locked skittering across your brain as you’re trying to sleep than leaving you staggered on the collective whole as “SugarHouse” reaches its terminus. Alex G and his music currently feel caught between worlds, finally reaching the hungry eyes of the industry machine proper, all charts, festival appearances, and streaming numbers, while still keeping up the hard-to-define awe of a catalog that’s so consistently excellent that each individual piece begins to fade into one another. That is the magic of Alex G. And while HOUSE OF SUGAR deservedly belongs on year-end lists, as all of his efforts for the past seven years have, it’s still a magic that’s likely not entirely suited for something with such permanent and rigidly defined parameters.