An Alex Giannascoli song can be anything. Ask someone what (Sandy) Alex G sounds like and you’re bound to get a different answer every time. That answer will probably depend on when one hopped aboard the Alex G train. Earlier on, they might focus on the pitch-shifted oddities and acoustic warbles that make up his treasure trove of self-released material; more recently, they might be drawn to the roots-rock of Rocket, the glitchy anthems of DSU and Beach Music. Whatever the answer, the only thing tying these disparate songs together is Giannascoli himself, a singular figure whose idiosyncratic tastes have inspired the kind of fandom that’s rare among indie-rock artists nowadays, a fanatical devotion that breeds Facebook meme groups and viral tweets that have a little to do with the musician himself, but even more to do with the compelling music that he creates.
That music is often inexplicable, but House Of Sugar — his latest album and third for Domino — is maybe the most concise summation of Giannascoli’s many talents, a little bit of everything for anyone who has ever taken an interest in the Philadelphia boy wonder. It’s a collection of exquisite hauntings, songs threaded together by a clawing sense of unease. House Of Sugar is Giannascoli’s most cinematic work yet. It’s not difficult to imagine him continuing on in the lineage of delightfully unsettling horror movie scores that have come out in the last few years — Ari Aster, get in touch! — and House Of Sugar leans into that. At times the album’s surreal fever dream sounds like a waking nightmare.
The album’s middle section is a series of such syrupy, tense instrumentals that evoke a heavy dread. It’s in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, whose claustrophobic Good Time score certainly seems like an influence. Giannascoli worked with Daniel Lopatin last year on a reimagining of “Babylon,” an OPN song whose spacey electroacoustic experimentation has more than a bit in common with what Giannascoli himself has been exploring over the last couple of years.
Getting a handle on what exactly Giannascoli is trying to explore with his music can be difficult. He’s reticent to over-explain his music, uncomfortable in constructing an easy narrative around his songs. There’s a reason for that. “Without fail, every time I’ve loved a song and looked it up to figure out what it’s about, I won’t care about it anymore,” he said in an interview with us a couple years ago. “It’s this personal magic, and nobody realizes the reality of a song’s meaning or whatever is not gonna compare with that untouched story in your head. The reason you enjoy [music] is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it.”
In the handful of times he’s talked about this album, he eludes any specifics. “They’re all just stories,” he said in his Fader cover. “Sometimes I use my life as inspiration for the story, and sometimes I don’t.” To take the biography put together by his record label at face value, it’d seem like the biggest change in his life before House Of Sugar was an upgrade to a different microphone, abandoning the trusty mic he had been using since he first started putting albums out on Bandcamp. He’s more interested in the mechanics behind his music rather than pinpointing where they might emerge from his subconscious. That seems appropriate for songs that often devolve into a soup of noise, or get stuck on a repeating phrase that twists and swirls until its meaning changes into something else entirely.
But there’s more to Giannascoli’s music than meets the eye, and he layers it in a way that rewards close reading. A few reference points for House Of Sugar stick out. The album’s title, for instance, pulls from a bunch of different places. It’s a reference to the SugarHouse casino, a Philadelphia gambling den that Giannascoli evokes in all its garish seediness and hope for redemption on the album’s closing track. It’s a reference to the Grimm fairy tale retold on lead single “Gretel,” a house of sugar that promises sweetness and ends in tragedy. And it’s also a reference to a short story by Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo called “The House Made Of Sugar.” In the story, a married couple are driven into shared madness by the wife’s superstitions and fantastical paranoia. She desires a brand new house, one that has never been occupied so it hasn’t had the opportunity to be sullied by the ghosts of someone else’s past. The wife wants a clean slate, but the husband deceives her by settling into a house that only has a fresh coat of paint, said to look like a house of sugar, and the wife is eventually possessed by the previous owner’s traits. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life, her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes,” she says at one point. “I’m bewitched.”
That desire for a clean slate must have resonated with Giannascoli. It’s clear that he uses his music as a way to sort through his complicated feelings on humanity, and on House Of Sugar he spends a lot of time thinking about the cosmic scales of justice and the value of punishment. What happens when a good person does a bad thing? On “Hope,” one of the most straight-forward songs Giannascoli has ever made, he sings about a friend who died from a opioid overdose, and he wonders how he could have possibly helped: “Why I write about it now/ Gotta honor him somehow.”
Giannascoli is preoccupied with humanity’s tendency to destroy themselves. House Of Sugar seems to be about the corrosive quality of the past, the ways addiction or naïveté or inherited trauma can eat away at the fragility of the world. It’s about trying to be a good person but failing constantly, falling back on your vices and making mistakes and fucking up all the time. As he puts it cheekily on one track: “Good music makes me wanna do bad things.” He turns that struggle into a rallying cry on “Gretel” (“Good people gotta fight to exist!”); he absorbs guilt on “Crime” (“They kill him for the crime/ But I know they’re mistaken/ It was me the whole time”); and he toes the line with himself on “SugarHouse” (“Baby, I’ve been a good boy/ But sometimes I can’t keep it straight”). He wants to start over, absolve himself and the rest of us of sin, but it doesn’t work. “I’m a bad man/ How about that?” he asks in a bratty scowl on one song. “If I had a way, I would take it back.”
He slips between all of these different modes of being with ease, sometimes even within the same song. Giannascoli has always adopted a multiplicity of personalities on his songs, manipulating his voice so he can be more than one person at the same time. That’s part of the reason why his music can be so hard to pin down, because he’s always doing more than one thing at a time. He’s in conversation with himself, and on House Of Sugar that conversation is about our collective shortcomings.
But underlying his twangy disappointment is an earnest and welcoming aspect, a more traditional singer-songwriter that’s aiming to connect with rather than admonish his audience. That can be heard on “Cow,” where he turns the phrase into a tender term of endearment (“You big old cow/ You draw me out/ Lie on the ground/ Kiss on the mouth”) and it can be heard in the Springsteenian live rendition of “SugarHouse” that closes out the album, the static of the room adding emphasis to what Giannascoli’s music does best, acting as a group singalong for those united in their struggle to be better, to not get too caught up in the past and move into the present. “You never really met me/ I don’t think anyone has,” he sings on that song, holding out hope for a person’s constant capacity for change.
House Of Sugar is out 9/13 on Domino.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Charli XCX’s next-level Charli.
• Jenny Hval’s outre pop outing The Practice Of Love.
• JPEGMAFIA’s cluttered and energetic All My Heroes Are Cornballs.
• Pixies’ rambunctious Beneath The Eyrie.
• Belle & Sebastian’s Days Of The Bagnold Summer soundtrack.
• Chelsea Wolfe’s folky Birth Of Violence.
• Long Beard’s dreamy, pristine Means To Me.
• Alex Cameron’s goofily tender Miami Memory.
• Men I Trust’s languidly breezy Oncle Jazz.
• Microwave’s heavy Death Is A Warm Blanket
• Devendra Banhart’s intimate Ma.
• Blonde Redhead member KAZU’s solo debut Adult Baby.
• Twin Peaks’ smooth and jangly Lookout Low.
• Luke Temple’s warm Both-And.
• Tiny Moving Parts’ twinkling Breathe.
• Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier’s team-up Corpse Flower.
• Super Furry Animals leader Gruff Rhys’ latest solo effort Pang!
• Metronomy’s slinky Metronomy Forever.
• Surf Curse’s pointedly spacey Heaven Surrounds You.