There aren’t cults in indie rock anymore. There are the hives, the larger than life fandoms that follow around big-name pop stars like Beyoncé or the One Direction boys, but the days of that intense adoration gravitating around indie musicians like Jeff Mangum or Calvin Johnson have long since passed. It’s partly due to how the proliferation of the Internet and streaming services affected the underground’s relationship with the mainstream, making cult music easier to find and share; as a result, the deep, obsessive followings around smaller artists don’t exist like they used to.
An exception to this rule is Alex Giannascoli, or (Sandy) Alex G, whose early recordings were passed around like a secret between devotees and whose obtuse melodies and inscrutable lyrics served as much a barrier for casual fans as a sanctuary for those who followed. From self-released tapes on Bandcamp to signing with Domino for 2015’s Beach Music, his stature grew as more were awed by his gift for songwriting, an emotive esoteric style that felt familiar yet bewildering.
Giannascoli is revered by his fans and peers alike, many of who speak of him as one of his generation’s pre-eminent songwriters. This reputation is what caused Frank Ocean to seek out his talent as a collaborator on last summer’s Endless and Blonde. While none of Giannascoli’s methods are wholly original — stream-of-consciousness lyrics punctuated by moments of clarity, song structures that flip on a dime, and a hazy, half-awake quality — his influence on Ocean’s more recent material was apparent.
On Rocket, his latest with Domino, Giannascoli dives deeper into his insular world while also expanding his palette, experimenting with jazz, country R&B, and noise rock. While the entire album is unmistakably him, no two songs are alike. The angst-filled fury of “Brick” finds Giannascoli screaming over a muddled production as if Lil Ugly Mane produced a Trapt single. On the next song, “Sportstar”, he sings an Auto-Tuned ballad about a destructive, one-sided relationship over hypnotic keyboards. “Proud” proves he could make a tremendous alt-country record one day if he wanted to, and there’s a saxophone on closer “Guilty” that would make Dev Hynes and Carly Rae Jepsen blush. Giannascoli’s gift is that he can manage these wild shifts in tone without ever losing sight of his vision. It’s purposefully scattered, not so much showing off as a desperate search for the right way to express himself at any one time.
While the frequent comparisons to Elliott Smith that have followed him through his career still stand, as the lovely “Big Fish” could be an Either/Or outtake, his influences have varied greatly this time around. A key change is the addition of violinist Molly Gerner, who contributes to half of the album’s songs and started dating Giannascoli soon after the recording sessions began. Gerner infuses songs like single “Bobby”, a tender duet with Emily Yacina, with a dramatic flair that recalls Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co. On standout “Powerful Man”, Giannascoli channels Issac Brock circa Lonesome Crowded West by recasting “Trailer Trash” from the point of view of someone with less self-pity and more empathy.
His storytelling blurs the line between anecdotal and autobiographical, as the slow grooving “County” recalls a night spent in lockup next to a kid muling heroin who swallowed a razor. The coda flips perspectives by revealing the story was dictated to Giannascoli, who suggested, “Why don’t you write that into a song/ Maybe your fans will dig that.” These puzzling details pervade Rocket, making him all the more challenging to pin down.
As discordant as the pieces of Rocket can be, as a whole, this is a record about the faces and personas we put on to face the world. On the aforementioned “Powerful Man” and “Big Fish”, Giannascoli overcompensates with lyrics of how tough he is with the confidence of an insecure teenager, purposefully undercutting the braggadocio with a melancholy, insecure undertone. As obtuse as his lyrics can be, he appears wracked with self-doubt throughout. “Bobby” finds him so desperate for love that he offers to alienate his friends and falls into harmful patterns to facilitate a toxic relationship. On “Witch”, he feels cursed by his own self-destructive tendencies, which pop up again frequently throughout. It’s most tenderly felt on “Sportstar”, where he falls for the scarred star athlete he’d do anything for, asking to be hurt if that’s what it takes. “I don’t want to live long, just strong,” he exclaims.
He sums it up on closer “Guilty”, arguably the darkest song in recent years to be built around gang vocals and a jazz outro. “Are you guilty?/ Are you waiting to be found?/ Do you think that you’d be happier with no one else around?” Giannascoli asks over an ear-worm melody. The song brings the album full circle, a record about constant paranoia and inescapable anxiety, about feeling wholly undeserving of love because of the past mistakes you’ve made, and putting on a mask to the world to hide the insecurity. As inscrutable as it can be at times, Giannascoli never betrays his purpose, making Rocket his most developed and accomplished album yet. Giannascoli’s cult following came from the fact that his songs read like a secret language, and by opening that up on Rocket, he’s found a way to speak for more than just himself.
Essential Tracks: “Powerful Man”, “Bobby”, and “Sportstar”