House of Sugar, the eighth studio album released by (Sandy) Alex G is a glittering masterpiece chock-full of the playful, painful melancholy that characterizes Alex Giannascoli’s music.
Some actually credit House of Sugar as Giannascoli’s ninth album – the Philadelphia singer-songwriter has been prolific on the platform Bandcamp for nearly ten years, releasing a steady mix of studio albums as well as rougher singles and EP’s. His work ranges from fierce instrumental experimentation to fantastical electronic soundscapes, from childish sing-song tracks about animals and body fluids to lyrical anthems that hit with the emotional force of a blow to the chest and leave you crying on the subway. His music never really feels disparate, though. Giannascoli’s plaintive voice is recognizable as it ranges from a hoarse tenor to a childish falsetto. More than that, an unmistakable current of a certain kind of giddy melancholy runs through every song, a sense of some intangible glowing thing that has been loved and lost and still held close.
The singles “Hope” and “Southern Sky” are classic Alex G, vaguely narrative elegies wherein mourning is set to catchy indie guitar melodies that stick in your mind like heartbreak itself. “Hope” is more clearly autobiographical than is generally typical of Giannascoli’s songwriting, a deceptively upbeat track memorializing a friend who died of a fentanyl overdose. “Southern Sky” is one of my personal favorites, nostalgic and determined, a promise: “When I wake up I am smiling / Now I will not change my mind / I will remember the trouble in my brother’s eyes,” followed by a chorus in the lullaby voices of children: “It’s okay, we don’t cry / We love the southern sky.”
Another personal favorite (because I love songs that make me cry) is “In My Arms” a straight-up heartbreaking number reminiscent of songs such as “Change” and “Mis.” One thing, here, that sets (Sandy) Alex G apart from other contemporary indie singer-songwriters is that his memorials to love lost are never so bitter as they are earnest, never as upset as they are fond. “In My Arms” is so damn heartbreaking because it is so gentle: “Pull up the car outside your house / Took out the seats so we could lie down,” Gianascolli croons mournfully to a percussion-fueled threnody, “You know who was in my arms, you know who was in my arms,” he continues in the chorus: a love too tragic to name, a memory too tender.
House of Sugar also features a solid helping of giddily fantastical tracks, following in the tradition of earlier (Sandy) Alex G songs like “Whale”, “Snot”, and “Powerful Man.” “Bad Man” is the most flamboyantly jesting. I would describe “Bad Man” as a cowboy techno-ballad, but that description very much fails to express how heart-rending the song is – it’s a song that has to be listened to to be believed.
The track “Sugar” – one of the most instrumentally abstract songs on the album, evokes a daydream world too, albeit a very different one – it’s an eerie, synth-y number that glitters and soars cinematically. An ominous fairytale soundtrack, it complements “Gretel”, the first single from House of Sugar, a bright but unsettling interpretation of the fable of Hansel and Gretel, hungry children lured through a dark forest into the creepy candy fun-house of a hungry witch.
“Walk Away” (the opening track), “Taking”, and “Near” (one of the final singles released prior to the album, in August) are all variations on a recurring theme in Alex G’s canon, unrelenting choruses that grate like the yearning they describe. “Walk Away” is a singsong lamentation in which Giannascoli plaintively repeats, “Walk away, walk away / Not today, not today” against a grating guitar rhythm. “Near” is a siren-like, howling chant: “All I want is to be near you, you, you, you, you, you, you.” Not atypically for the artist, these songs would be abrasive in their repetitiveness were they not so achingly, earnestly full of longing, so very hungry.
From singles released over the summer, some Alex G fans predicted that House of Sugar would be directly comparable to Race, one of Giannascoli’s earliest albums, defined by tracks with uncomplicated instrumental rhythms and simple lyrics that somehow cut deep, such as “It’s a really big place / Way up here in outer space / You know it’s all just a race / You can let it go.”
As it turns out, House of Sugar is both more childish and more mature than Race, which was recorded when Giannascoli was a teenager making music from his bedroom. However, some of House of Sugar’s most eloquent tracks demonstrate the same raw lyrical truth-telling. The final track on the album, a live recording of the eponymous song SugarHouse, cuts especially deep with the lines “You never really met me / I don’t think anyone had / But we could still be players together / Let SugarHouse pick up the tab,” Giannascoli invites, voice raw, complemented by a soft piano melody and a sympathetic saxophone. This inauspicious, informally recorded final track has already been recognized as one of (Sandy) Alex G’s most powerful songs to date.
In a music scene choked with irony and posturing for clout, (Sandy) Alex G’s appeal is in his earnestness, and in the childlike-nature of his artistry: fantasies of witches and cowboys, themes of nostalgia, simple sing-song melodies, hauntingly innocent wisdom. House of Sugar showcases these and a range of other elements of his artistry, each track a different-flavored chocolate in a shiny heart-shaped box, and yet not so neat and bright as that – the album’s sugary motif reminds me of a line from “Candy”, a song from Alex G’s 2012 album Rules: “Sweet like sugar you’ll go down / Stain my teeth and rot my mouth.”
For all his playfulness, Giannascoli knows what children inherently do not: that sweetness and bitterness are completely intertwined, that they do not taint but complement each other, that sometimes love leaves a bad taste in your mouth and sometimes loss crystallizes like sugared fruit, that sometimes darkness nourishes you when sugar leaves you hungry. These fierce truths spoken from a glimmering fantasy-land are what make House of Sugar a crushingly beautiful, absolutely outstanding album.
Review by Elle Howard