Having a favorite (Sandy) Alex G album is like a Rorschach test. The Philadelphia songwriter born Alex Giannascoli has such a surprising, prolific, and eclectic catalog that each of his eight studio albums make are thrillingly unique. Bedroom-made subdued folk that evokes Elliott Smith? Try his early recordings, like his 2010 debut Race or his more polished Orchid Tapes-released 2014 LP DSU. Into noisier experiments and disjointedly charming indie rock melodies? Check out 2015's Beach Music or 2012 fan-favorite Trick. Looking for an album that has both infectious country ballads and industrial hardcore freakouts? 2017's Rocket is the best bet thanks to the twangy "Bobby" and the squall of "Brick."
However, his latest, House of Sugar, is the most confident distillation of both Giannascoli's growth as an artist and his love of eccentric left turns. Giannascoli has managed to stake out such an unpredictable career—from a self-released Bandcamp bedroom auteur to a Domino-signed artist who's collaborated with Frank Ocean—by imbuing his songs with a heavy dose of heart and beguiling ambiguity. His music can shift from disarmingly childlike to menacing and angry. Take the 2018 single "Fay," which found Giannascoli pitch-shifting his vocals up to sound like a kid, singing, "Here they come knocking at my door / What's the problem officer, what's your knocking for?" mimicking the sound of a police siren throughout. Rarely autobiographical, Giannascoli writes character-based vignettes that can be both disturbing and empathetic; portraits of grifters, drunks, and outcasts.
On House of Sugar, Giannascoli thrives on these extremes. Lead single "Gretel" kicks off with an eerie wall of feedback and pummeling guitars, but as the song unfolds it grows more delicate and almost sweet. He sings over brightly strummed acoustic guitars, "I don’t wanna go back / Nobody’s gonna push me off track, uh huh." It sounds defiant and even hopeful, but this aural optimism is an illusion.
While the album title is an obvious reference to Hansel and Gretel, the Grimms' fairy tale where two siblings encounter a cottage made of candy (a House of Sugar) and overcome a witch, Giannascoli's interpretation of the German story is apparently more sinister. According to a recent Fader cover story, "on Alex’s re-telling of the classic tale, 'Gretel,' the titular hero lets her brother get eaten by the witch. Instead of feeling guilt, she fantasizes about returning to the cottage to binge on more candy." Here, he's interested in how selfishness can lead to overindulgence. He says in the interview, "Everything that I do, and everything that everyone does—you’re just gobbling up everything around you." Another track, "Taking," also explores this gluttony: "That's how she found me this morning / Bundled my head in her arms / Lifted my spoonful of sugar."
Even without the explanation, Giannascoli's songs have an inherent mystery to them, oscillating between inviting and dreadful, dreamlike and reasonable, or good and evil. It's one of his biggest strengths, and likely why he's reticent about explaining his own material in interviews.
"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 told Stereogum in 2017. That's not the case with House of Sugar, an album so strong that Giannascoli's press revelations add deeper layers to the material. Take "Southern Sky," the LP's strongest track and arguably his most infectious song to date, due to his longtime collaborators—vocalist Emily Yacina and violinist Molly Germer—adding rustic charm. While lyrics like, "It’s OK we don’t cry... we love the southern sky," might sound comforting at first, in his recollection: "It must have been in a dream or something. It just sounded so eerie—soothing, but kind of creepy too.” Looking for the sinister in what's ostensibly his most welcoming song is what makes listening to (Sandy) Alex G so rewarding.
The middle of the LP reverses course from the oft-pretty Americana of side A. In 2018, Giannascoli guested on an EP by avant-electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, and the darkly cinematic mood of their collaboration echoes on these songs. Single "Near" sounds sub-aquatic, with its throbbing bass and synth, all taken with Giannascoli's heavily processed vocals desperately singing, "All I want is to be near you, you, you, you, you, you, you." The endless repetition can feel disconcerting, but the arrangement feels intentional, creating a feeling of anxiety that makes thematic sense in the context of the entire album. The same goes for an even more left-field song in "Project 2," a track that makes do with pulsing, unpredictable drum beats and ambient synth stabs. It's a section that might alienate fans of his more immediately accessible work, but it's by far some of the most exciting songwriting on House of Sugar.
The album's final third returns to straightforward and ambling guitar-based arrangements. The gentle acoustic number "Cow" matches the earnestness of the side A highlight "Hope," when he sings, "You big old cow / You draw me out / Lie on the ground / Kiss on the mouth."
The variety on House of Sugar and the way Giannascoli can dynamically occupy different moods makes it one of the year's most compelling listens and the best of his personal discography. The last song on the album—"SugarHouse," which is actually a live recording taken from a show in St. Louis, Missouri—feels like a grimy Springsteen cover. Referencing a waterfront casino in Philadelphia, he sings, "You never really met me / I don’t think anyone has / But we can still be players together / Let SugarHouse pick up the tab."
Whether the SugarHouse of the LP's title refers to that gambling center or the candy cottage from the story of Hansel and Gretel is unclear. Since (Sandy) Alex G's music excels in the middle ground between certainty and doubt, not having all the answers is exactly the point.