Album Review: (Sandy) Alex G - 'House of Sugar'
Owen tells us why the latest offering from underground indie star Alex G is his most interesting and exciting record yet.
(Sandy) Alex G has had one of the slowest burning and hardest-earned come-ups in modern indie music. It can be traced from his humble bedroom beginnings – where he produced a number of Bandcamp albums and innumerable loose odds and ends – to a debut for indie heavyweights Domino; 2015’s Beach Music. He amassed an enormous following prior to getting signed thanks to his knack for haunting melodies that manage to sound simultaneously alien and eerily familiar, as well as his offbeat lyrics that range from the inscrutably fantastical to quietly profound observations taken from his own experiences.
The shake-y Beach Music was sometimes bogged down in erratic experimentation and sloppily structured songs, however Alex really came into his own on 2017’s Rocket, which also served as his (in underground terms) star-making moment. Earning him critical acclaim and taking his devoted bedroom fandom to festival levels, it made him one of the most closely watched up-comers in modern indie. He also enjoyed some writing and arranging credits on Frank Ocean’s 2016 opus Blonde, playing guitar on some of its finest tracks and writing himself firming into modern indie mythology.
Since his Bandcamp origins, Alex has been honing his skills as something of a poet laureate among indie rock front men. With 2017’s Rocket came a surprising left turn into alt-country and Americana for Alex, as he populated the album with warped acoustic strums, warbling strings and down-and-outs. Latest release House of Sugar now sees Alex further his nu-Springsteen agenda in many regards, expanding his tales of gamblers, deadbeats and petty thugs.
'He amassed an enormous following prior to getting signed thanks to his knack for haunting melodies that manage to sound simultaneously alien and eerily familiar'.
Stunning and haunted lead single Gretel re-frames the famous fairy-tale with the titular Gretel abandoning her brother to his fate in the witch’s house, while she finds her only regret is not being able to stay and eat more candy. The song piles in full force with one of the album’s few true blooded rock riffs, offset with slatherings of eerie pedal steel guitar that echo around the mix to stunning effect. This is followed by a gorgeous, understated chorus in which Alex laments that ‘good people gotta fight to exist’ over gently strummed acoustic guitar, further hitting home the album’s theme of struggle against our own selfishness.
Elsewhere, closer SugarHouse – named after a real casino Alex visits occasionally – seeks solace in communal vice and a sense of shared loneliness. Despite this, the last verse closes the album on a note of hope, with its deadbeat protagonist proclaiming over luxurious saxophone and restrained keys his hope that the SugarHouse can ‘put [him] together again’. Latter-half highlight Crime offers perhaps the most distilled summary of this theme with its chorus: ‘they killed him for the crime/but I know their mistake/ it was me the whole time’.
Perhaps the album’s most significant move away from Rocket is in its joyous use of sound play and break from conventional song structures and genre forms. While songs like Taking and Near might feature some of the conventions of country, with their acoustic strumming and chromatic bass lines, they also present increasingly bizarre vocal manipulations and mystical repetitions that mutate meanings as they loop single word phrases into mantras equal parts comforting and spooky.
Elsewhere, auto-tuned electro-country oddity Bad Man features Alex putting on a voice which somehow captures the effect of the entire album; it’s so strikingly bizarre and otherworldly that it’s hard to pinpoint what emotion Alex is trying to communicate, which only makes it all the more powerful as you have to find your own interpretation. The album’s idiosyncratic central run is capped off by Sugar – an intensely pummeling dirge of processed strings and vocoder warped to the point of being completely unrecognizable and unintelligible. This is interspersed by grand and powerful piano melodies that sparkle above the cluttered mix with beauty and menace. It stands as one of his most compelling and mystical songs yet, sounding like a panoramic virtual reality experience of a pagan ritual.
'It’s so strikingly bizarre and otherworldly that it’s hard to pinpoint what emotion Alex is trying to communicate, which only makes it all the more powerful as you have to find your own interpretation'.
The album’s final run manages to stand out from the Rocket-esqe first third and the strange and alien second whilst still being equally compelling. In My Arms and Cow stand easily as two of his most direct and stripped-down ballads to date, and the results are elegant and romantic to the core. In My Arms features one of the album’s most ear-wormy choruses backed up by some supremely tasteful chorus shredding and wistful chord progression, complimented by poignant lyrics about a seemingly male lover: ‘you know good music makes me wanna do bad things’. Cow stands as one of Alex’s few direct and sentimental love songs; full of breezy pastoral imagery, it’s given just enough bite by its cheeky ‘you big fat cow’ chorus and its ambiguous hints of drug abuse and darker undercurrents.
Aforementioned closer SugarHouse takes Alex’s sound in a surprisingly broad and grandiose Springsteen direction – its scuffling shuffle beat and swaying sentimental horns sound like they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Born To Run-era rarity, while the amusingly cliché chords provide a lovely background for Alex’s band to show off their virtuosity on the song’s closing solos.
This is just another intriguing direction hinted at on Alex G’s most gracefully articulated and fully formed album yet; an album that revels in its imperfections and manages to approach perfection for it. The emerging voice of a new generation’s underground is rapidly coming into focus – this is only the beginning.