Emotional immediacy and off-kilter experimentation don’t always go hand in hand, but achieving both has never been an issue for Alex Giannascoli. The Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter who records under (Sandy) Alex G makes music that resonates deeply, no matter how far he leads you into his limitless musical funhouse. Garbled guitars, pitch-shifted vocals and askew keyboards are right in his wheelhouse, but he can just as easily hammer out an acoustic ballad to end all acoustic ballads. What unites Giannascoli’s songs are his sixth sense for melody and the weight he captures with songs that often resemble sketches.
Giannascoli first made a name for himself as a DIY musician, self-recording and self-releasing albums for several years before dropping his label debut, DSU, in 2014 via Orchid Tapes and being dubbed “The Internet’s Secret Best Songwriter” by The Fader that same year. He was soon picked up by Domino Records and found critical acclaim with 2015’s Beach Music and 2017’s Rocket, the former full of enigmatic lo-fi strolls and the latter leaning into yearning alt-country with flashes of droning clamor and industrial textures. He even drew admiration from Frank Ocean, who invited Giannascoli to play guitar on his 2016 albums Endless and Blonde.
On House of Sugar, his latest full-length, Giannascoli was tasked with following up his two best albums and decided to push himself further into bold songwriting and evocative lyricism. Giannascoli actualizes this vision through trust, an essential component of his long-standing appeal. His voice is approachable and distinctly trustworthy, and his lyrics draw listeners’ loyalty and vulnerability, even though he uses vague storytelling. Equally important is Giannascoli’s trust that listeners won’t only come along for his unconventional ride, but take the ride repeatedly to map out his wonky instrumentals and find each subsequent listen more absorbing than the last.
“My intention is to make something that you can listen to a hundred times,” Giannascoli tells Paste. “I try and construct the music in a way that stuff that doesn’t make sense on the first listen will make sense on like the fifth listen. And then there’s other stuff that will make more sense that you didn’t hear before on the next listen. I think when you first listen to it, there probably is a lot of awkwardness, but it’s just because of the music that I liked growing up I guess. I could listen to it over and over.”
Like all (Sandy) Alex G albums, there’s an initial clumsiness on House of Sugar that he reliably transforms into moments of idiosyncratic flair. Rocket opens with banjo, dog barks and violin on the madcap “Poison Root,” and House of Sugar lead track “Walk Away” also begins with layered chaos—wailing guitars, backwards dissonance, stumbling keyboards and contorted vocals repeating the same few lines. Giannascoli’s cowboy goofiness on “Bad Man” is actually laughable at first, but then you realize his warped Southern drawl is meant to soften the blow of his morbid lyrics about war. He bursts into laughter when we discuss the song’s vocals. Giannascoli talks about his music like he’s thinking out loud, never worried about accidentally revealing his true intentions, but also prone to changing his mind halfway through an answer.
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” Giannascoli says. “[“Bad Man”] went through a couple of different versions. It started out just acoustic guitar and then I did a version just on piano and it was just so corny every time. And then I guess I was just like, ‘Fuck this song. This song is so corny.’ So I just leaned into the corniness as hard as possible and then that’s what happened.”
Lead single “Gretel” is another taste of Giannascoli’s ability to stupefy while creating something memorable, and it feels like a breakthrough, even when compared to his strongest songs to date. The chorus has catchy enough melodies for a Taylor Swift hit, but its dense sheets of unsettling bellows and manipulated vocals provide listeners with plenty of intrigue to wade through.
“I knew that one was going to be the single pretty much as soon as I wrote it,” Giannascoli says. “Just because of that middle chorus part where it’s like, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ because I just never wrote anything like that. I could tell it was pretty poppy.”
The end result is interesting no matter what, but it’s almost as if Giannascoli arrives at these eccentricities through his willingness to try something crazy, even if it’s only to amuse himself, rather than some experimental intuition or technical mastery. During a particularly sparse moment on “Crime,” there’s a sound effect that resembles dropped marbles, and Giannascoli will likely succeed in deceiving listeners.
“It’s funny, drumsticks hitting the sides of the drums,” Giannascoli says. “In person it’s like this loud crack, but on the recording, it’s only this tiny little frequency. I don’t know any of the technical shit, you know?”
Giannascoli has largely used the same home recording setup for years, but he finally brought some new gear into the fold on House of Sugar—not a new guitar or god forbid, a ukulele, but a new microphone and a laptop equipped with an updated version of Garageband.
“I think that’s probably the reason why I ended up taking more time with this one because I was dealing with these tools that I was less familiar with, so in a way I was starting from scratch,” Giannascoli says. “I still have the basic recording techniques that I used before, but whatever techniques I use to finetune, I had to figure out different techniques for that because there’s just so much more detail with this microphone and then the new version of Garageband, all the hot keys are different and stuff.”
Beyond the technical upgrade, House of Sugar is the most lyrically intentional record of his lengthy discography. The three lines of “Walk Away” are simple, yet affecting, illustrating emotional restraint or possibly even cowardice: “Someday / I’m gonna walk away from you / Not today.” On “Hope,” Giannascoli writes with uncharacteristic detail about a friend who died of a drug overdose: “Saw some people crying that night / Yeah Fentanyl took a few lives from our life.” “Gretel” has a devastating line about good-natured people who are often the most tortured or persecuted (“I don’t wanna be this / Good people gotta fight to exist”), while “Crime” speaks of the ill-intentioned who will manipulate at every given opportunity, even if it means someone else becomes collateral damage (“You will be my alibi / Wait until the dawn / When they look / I’m gone”).
House of Sugar’s characters withstand a lot of turmoil, but there’s a poised exhale on album closer “SugarHouse,” a track named after a Philadelphia casino and recorded at a recent show in St. Louis. Giannascoli sings with sincerity over a suitable closing-time saxophone, “I won’t be forgotten / Let ‘em bury me in the sand / When our children go digging for answers / I hope they can / Put me together again.” Giannascoli’s ambiguous style leaves just enough up to interpretation, but not so much narrative conclusiveness that his cryptic spark is extinguished.
“I guess it all goes back to the revisiting quality,” Giannascoli says. “I just want to make songs that the story never ends, so I try and leave off any checkpoints that would allow you to tie it up. So in that way, you can keep coming back to it and coming back to it.”
House of Sugar has quite the range. There’s a lurking creepiness (“Sugar,” “Crime”), rural tranquility (“Cow,” “Southern Sky”), looming mortality (“Bad Man,” “SugarHouse”) and burning desire (“Near,” “In My Arms”) all packaged into one record. He’s still floating above any genre consideration, flickering between lo-fi indie, country, industrial, ambient and electronic music, but always sounding like himself. Most courageously, he’s not afraid to evoke a mood he’s captured in the hundreds of tracks he’s written before—as long as the song moves him.
“If something gives me a little tug in one way, then I keep it and I keep working on it,” Giannascoli says. “I probably do rehash a lot of old stuff, but I guess I just don’t think about it that way. If it feels good, then I just keep doing it because that’s the only gauge that I know how to use.”
(Sandy) Alex G continually offers a shoulder to cry on, a transfixing instrumental passage to escape life’s clutches or a strange vocal part to comically mimic. The warm-hearted 26-year-old cult musician is always there to helm the ship, using his uncanny melodic instinct as a compass, and it hasn’t failed him yet.
House of Sugar is out on Sept. 13 via Domino Records. Listen to (Sandy) Alex G’s 2014 Daytrotter session below.