In music, as in every other creative art, the line between biographical and autobiographical is often blurred. Rarely, does the listener know for sure whether the song is an accurate depiction of personal experience or an account of another’s fortunes and woes. Similarly, It’s very easy for an artist to obscure the meaning of a song, to layer it with ambiguity to allow multiple interpretations. The mark of a truly gifted songwriter is whether they can do all of these things and turn an ephemeral ditty into a meaningful song that stands the passage of time. This is clearly a lesson digested and understood by Alex G over the course of seven previous albums and which now culminates in an astutely observed album featuring a rich array of characters.
Alex G (aka Alex Giannascoli) has built a steady following with his self-made, laptop recorded albums which saw him score a deal with Domino Records for the release of his sun-drenched, experimental rock album Beach House in 2015. Unexpectedly, this resulted in him getting a mysterious call to work with Frank Ocean on the long-awaited Endless and Blonde records. The experience has clearly done him good. It quickly becomes clear that this is an artist brimming with confidence as he opens himself up to different ways to create and add texture to his sound. Fortunately, while musically, he has embraced the freedom to stretch himself, he has maintained his greatest strength in how he articulates the needs, wants and fears of biographical characters over the course of a three-minute song.
To highlight the lo-fi, homespun nature of the album, opener “Poison Root” begins with the sound of a dog barking in the background before acoustic guitar, simply picked banjo and fiddle sketch a song so slight it sounds like it could end when any one of those components packs up and leaves. “Proud” is a more rootsy, freewheeling, Americana shuffle while “Bobby” shows itself to be one of the true highlights of the album. It’s a multi-layered love song with well-observed descriptions of the subtle nuances of character.
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It is this tacit understanding of the intricacies of the individuals that form relationships that are his real strength. The double-tracked female vocal from Emily Yacina gorgeously underpins Alex G’s voice, with the line “I’ll burn them for you” sounding both heartfelt and ominous in equal measures. It contains all the artistic nous of classic storytellers from Johnny Cash to Conor Oberst. “Witch” is slightly more fidgety with G never giving the song a chance to settle with the addition of backward guitar and echoey vocals.
Before things get too settled, G throws down two huge curve balls in quick succession. “Horse” is a frankly bizarre mix of horror b-movie synths and old-time piano. There is very little musicality on display and rather than coming across as thoughtfully dissonant, it sounds like a trapped seagull desperately trying to escape the inside of a piano. “Brick” is more successful in roughening up the mood. G adds Tricky style trip-hop beats and shreds his vocal chords with coarsely screamed lyrics. All told, it’s a refreshing, tightly coiled caustic ball of noise. Sadly, things deteriorate on “Sportstar” where the well-rounded tale of a frighteningly obsessive sports fan is obscured under a thick layer of Auto-Tuned vocals that jar rather than complement the gorgeously plaintive piano.
Thankfully, over the course of the album, there are other examples where G plays to his strengths. Over finger-picked guitar, G demonstrates his storytelling ability and his understanding of the subtleties of character on “Powerful Man”. Here, the protagonist’s arrogance slowly unravels to reveal a rather more sensitive and relatable figure. This continues into the elegant, floaty “Alina” where G tells the tale of an alienated schoolgirl utilizing his fragile falsetto and a thick wall of piano and guitar. “Big Fish” is a warm, breezy number reminiscent of Avi Buffalo with a similar sense of vulnerability behind the deceptive bravado. Sadly, the album concludes with a bit of a bum note as “Guilty” comes across as an amateurish jazz song like an unrehearsed wedding band.
On Rocket, Alex G proves that he is a very talented artist whose strength lies in his understanding of character. The protagonists are often initially sympathetic but their methods and their morals become ever more questionable the more they are scrutinized, giving them real depth. He also manages to take common subject matter such as alienation, pride, and relationships and find new ways to explore them by using the voice of the different characters he inhabits. However, for every beautifully defined melody and example of distinctive songwriting, there is a moment that highlights his limitations. For many, the eclecticism of the album is a sign of his astute and inventive mind. Nevertheless, there are occasions which suggest he has overreached himself slightly leaving a sometimes unbalanced album. Nonetheless, it remains an album that deserves to be heard and one which sees him heading somewhere very special.