Music Reviews
House of Sugar

Alex G House of Sugar

(Domino Recording Co) Rating - 8/10

The best songwriting trick that Alex Giannascoli (who goes by the name (Sandy) Alex G), knows how to use is confusing the personal and the universal. There are many layers to the Philadelphia's singer-songwriter's ninth album, and third, for Domino imprint, House of Sugar—the most discernible being Sugarhouse Casino, a gambling destination that inspires many of the subjects he covers. On the other hand, it's how he directly portrays himself in these stories— quasi-autobiographical narratives that teeter from obsession to madness. And we're never quite sure what to believe, so it's best to follow his internal voice no matter how oblique it gets.

By now, though, it's safe to say that Giannascoli has trained his listeners to expect the unexpected. He's never one to follow a straight course, whether he experiments with impressionistic sound collages or writes airy, resplendent Avant-folk. Curiously, opening track Walk Away may be the first time that Giannascoli tries to tie in both together—"Someday I'm gonna walk away from you/not today, not today," he repeats incessantly, believing his denial as a reversed loop collides with a fluttering acoustic guitar. It's an unsettling introduction to an album that, just like 2017's Rocket, balances gentle sentiment with darkness.

Giannascoli stacks many of his most accessible tracks early on, some of which are career highlights. Hope is a devastating recount on how he lost his friend to synthetic opioids—and yet he keeps the rhythm upbeat, maintaining a straightforward acoustic strum that follows his bittersweet vocal melody. The striding Southern Sky is the album's "Elliott Smith" moment, in the best sense of the term, a twangy waltz with a beautiful violin lead (courtesy of frequent collaborator Molly Germer) that oscillates around guest singer Emily Yacina's mellifluous delivery. There's a lot of variation from track to track, but Giannascoli applies a steady atmosphere to his well-structured arrangements without drifting off into the distance.

House of Sugar's erratic midpoint may bring some contention, especially for anyone who'd like Giannascoli to make a concerted effort to approach a consistent sound. During this stretch is where he gets especially surreal, both lyrically and sonically, digitalizing his voice— sometimes indecipherable (Near) and sometimes robotic (Sugar)—over haunting synths and discordant riffs. These sections are usually meant to assist the main songs, though this time around, Giannascoli packs in weighty themes like obsession and self-doubt—most of which will reward the most patient listeners. As experimental as they may be, he (with the assistance of mixer Jacob Portrait) builds a proper crescendo before he pacifies the mood for the album's last stretch—all handled with great care and joy.

It's through these small payoffs that Giannascoli guides his creative drive. There's a comfort in listening to a romantic musing like Cow—where he channels his inner Buddy Holly—after the epic, dramatic contours of Sugar (which wouldn't surprise me if I read that Yanni was a source of inspiration). So it's no surprise that House of Sugar is just as bewildering as Rocket, even if Giannascoli is too much of a tunesmith to keep things too abstract. He's a cunning songwriter who will take on a challenge whenever an idea seems too complex to untangle, even if his tender side will always be there. [Believe the Hype]