Few musicians inspire more questions than Alex G. From his outspoken songwriting to his reclusive public persona, the inscrutable indie rocker remains a point of fascination in the wider indie landscape. The Philadelphia luminary, whose full name is Alex Giannascoli, first rose to prominence in 2014 when his album memorandum of understanding unexpectedly garnered critical acclaim. Although he’s been quietly releasing music on Bandcamp for years, the sudden embrace of memorandum of understandingThe icy slowcore of led to his eventual signing to Domino. With each subsequent record, including that of 2017 Rocket and 2019 Sugar House, the mythos surrounding him have only grown, with his fanbase now resembling a cult. And yet, it feels ubiquitous. His name is immediately used as a point of comparison for any “weird” rock act. He has worked with bands like Japanese Breakfast and Frank Ocean. It is, in every sense, hard to pin down. His music ultimately feels like a simultaneous embrace and rejection of the genre.
This contradiction explains why his work can seem impossible to categorize. When we try to put a label on what he does, these labels seem insufficient to us. Sure, Rocket is the “folk” record, and Sugar House is “electronic” – neither label is incorrect, but they are each marked with an asterisk. In truth, Alex G’s brand of indie rock is a multi-faceted mix that he contorts on a whim. Sometimes he can put more emphasis on twangy guitars and string arrangements, other times on his drum machines and vocal manipulation. The result is always different, but the method remains essentially the same. His last album, god save the animalssits somewhere between the sonic palettes of its two predecessors, most reminiscent of the stable 2013 beach music. For moments Animals nod to the indie rock of Elliott Smith and others reminiscent of the uncomfortable and twisted soundscapes of Aphex Twin, it never strays too far in one direction.
What’s new this time around is an explicit appreciation of the substance and creative process behind pop music. Despite its creator’s years of making decidedly centre-left music, god save the animals often appears designed in the image of mainstream radio rock. When discussing the writing of the first single, the discordant “Blessing”, with The New York Times, Giannascoli described hearing Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” and being inspired by it. The album’s highlight, “Runner,” sounds like a direct descendant of Soul Asylum’s 2000 hit “Runaway Train.” Even when Giannascoli obscures his songs with aberrant synths and high-pitched vocals, there’s a marked improvement recording quality this time around. This shift to more faithful recording and intentional melody runs through each of Animals‘ 13 titles. It’s a testament to Alex G’s singular artistry that none of his sharp edges are polished, as is so often the case with this kind of sound level.
Alex G is known for frequently manipulating his own voice. Through vocal effects and modulation, he is able to create distance with his subjects, giving them a voice of their own and adding an unsettling texture to otherwise copacetic soundscapes. This can sometimes mask the emotional weight of the music. Animals‘ opening track, “After All” is a perfect example. It is difficult to discern the words in the center of his surreal voice. At first it seems that the human voice is only there to be the canvas for his studio tricks. A look at the lyrics, however, paints something much heavier. At the heart of this eerie harmony are phrases like: “There are rooms where I can’t lower my head / There are tears I can’t cry / In the years when you feel most alone / You will build the walls I climb,” and “After all / People come and people go / Yeah but God with me he stayed.” Devastating meditations on isolation are here to move you , if you pay attention to them. Pitch-shifted vocals also appear on one of the god save the animals‘ the most emotional moments of “Cross The Sea”. With his deep, hoarse voice, he appeals to eternal devotion; “I’d cross the sea for my baby / You can believe in me.” As a mix of live and mechanized drums glide down the track, jagged synths push against a labored, breathless delivery, making the titular sea a veritable odyssey.
The devotion found in “Cross The Sea” is as close to a central theme as Animals has. It might be easy to assume from the many direct references to God that the album resulted from Giannascoli embracing religion, although he insists the connection isn’t there. In many of these new songs, however, is a tangible sense of reverence. From the narrator of “No Bitterness” saying with an audible smile that he is inspired by a child’s sense of wonder, to the faithful operator of “Mission”, these stories explore our loyalty to ourselves, to the forces of our lives and to each other. The latter is the heart and soul of “Miracles”, the most impressive offering on the record and one of the strongest yet for Alex G. We see a couple reminiscing about their past together and dealing with the challenges unknowns the future may bring, but doubling down on their faith in each other, a dynamic beautifully described in one verse; “You say one day / we should have a baby / Well, right now baby / I’m having trouble, we’ll see,” followed by another, a quick change of heart; “You say someday / we should have a baby / Well, God help me / I love you, I agree.”
“Miracles” and “Runner” feature on the track list as obvious highlights, but they’re also sonic outliers. On a record that incorporates aspects of slowcore, drum & bass and nu metal, these clear-eyed, sobering tracks don’t feel encumbered by the darkness that lurks beneath most Alex G songs. – they are rather uplifted by hope. The simple instrumentation and lack of theatrics found in “Runner” underscore its outspoken emotional vulnerability. Although it reads on the surface as the simplest rocker he ever wrote, there’s still the discordant scream in the song‘s bridge. For anyone else, that moment would stay with you, coloring your perception, but for Alex G, it barely registers as left field.
It’s hard to incorporate such a range of influences into his music while still having a distinct sound. Alex G’s ability to expand the openness of his work with each album, and not alienate his audience, shows how well he is able to identify and define what stands out in his work. god save the animals is just the latest reminder that as his tastes expand, so does his sonic palate. There’s a moment in “Miracles” where Giannascoli sings, “How many songs am I supposed to write / Before I turn it off and say goodnight?” As listeners, we can only hope that this question is rhetorical.
Eric Bennett is a music critic with signatures at Post-trash, The gray domains and The alternative. They are also co-hosts of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.
Listen to Alex G’s Daytrotter 2014 session below.