Words About Music
I first came across the music of Philadelphia native (Sandy) Alex G back in the summer of 2014, when he was still simply Alex G and he hadn’t yet signed to Domino. Now, following the decent mixed-bag that was his 2015 Domino debut, “Beach Music,” comes the latest album from the lo-fi outsider. “Rocket” has been more highly acclaimed than any album Alex has put out yet, and I was highly anticipating something brilliant from him after really enjoying 2014’s “DSU” and seeing quite a bit of ambitious potential in “Beach Music.” If this kid is anything, he’s an experimenter, which sometimes works to his detriment because it causes his albums to lack any real sense of flow. Clearly this is intentional, but it can sometimes make his albums a bit jarring to listen to. This has more or less worked out for him for the better, though, and I’ve grown accustomed to his predictable unpredictability.
The album kicks off in a soft, welcoming manner with “Poison Root,” a somewhat classic intro from (Sandy). The vocals are quiet and almost indiscernible, buried among distant sounds of a barking dog and plucked guitars and banjos. It’s a bit meandering, but it has a solid build to it. It reminds me a bit of Mount Eerie, but if Phil Elverum was from Kentucky instead of Washington.
The track ends in a rather abrupt manner, taking us right into “Proud,” a country-inspired tune from Alex G that actually has a sing-along chorus. Like most of his songs, it can be hard to tell if he’s conveying a message that is legitimate or facetious. The lyrics of the song seem to denote a legitimate sense of pride, love, and support at first, but as the first chorus ends and Alex’s deadpan gives us Verse 2’s opening lines, — “I wanna be a fake like you/Walk around with rocks in my shoes/I just wanna play the game/Big and fat and insane” —it’s beginning to seem like this song is more of a sarcastic diss at somebody. From this perspective, the song’s chorus goes from being a heartfelt message about taking care of your loved ones to a fairly clear dig at someone who left their baby without no bottle to drink, left their baby without no money in her bank.
It’s a brilliant move for Sandy. “Proud” is a catchy song that grows on you, but it’s one of those moments where the lyrics denote something much darker than the isolated chorus might make one believe on the first couple listens.
“County,” the next song on this album, is another one of these types of musical red herrings. This 3-minute ballad is a beautiful, strange piece. It almost seems like the lyrics are there merely to serve as another layer to the jazzy instrumentation. However, the lyrics reveal a disturbing story about a cellmate in jail who accidentally swallowed a razorblade trying to conceal bags of heroin in his stomach, ending with the darkly funny line: “See I got some stories/Hey why don’t you write that/Into a song maybe?/Your fans will dig that.” The song reveals itself as being quite Lynchian following a closer read, and it certainly made me enjoy it more.
I similarly enjoy the also-country-inspired “Bobby,” a song where Alex pins his insecurities, doubts, vices, and undesirable behaviors on a different side of him, which he names after the titular character. The song is a message to a romantic partner, with Alex making sure they know that he is willing to fix himself and clean up his mess. It’s a beautiful track that, like most of his songs, presents more than initially meets the ear. It almost reminds me of a Sufjan Stevens song with its instrumental qualities and artful, poetic songwriting. I also enjoy the added element of having it be a duet with Emily Yacina, a previous Alex G collaborator and fellow musician.
“Witch” is a fairly bizarre track which some have pointed out bears a resemblance to Radiohead. I do see this comparison, but Alex’s choice to do his vocals in the somewhat obscure way he does them on this song is a bit of a turnoff. It also feels incomplete and underwritten, an aesthetic I know Alex is prone to indulging with mixed results. It’s directly followed by “Horse,” an instrumental song that sounds like a bunch of kids on hallucinogenic drugs playing instruments they invented around a campfire in a mountainous region of New Zealand. It’s isolated and tribal, but it’s certainly disjointed. It sounds like an excerpt from a longer piece of music in this style, and if it were more developed I could see myself enjoying it a lot more than I do. In the context of “Rocket,” unfortunately, it serves as mere filler.
As if the album couldn’t get more surprising, “Brick” comes in like, well, a brick. It’s 2 minutes of noise-inspired punk rock with some electronic instrumentation as well. Many have pointed out the similarities between this song and Death Grips, but personally this song sounds more like a lo-fi demo of something Show Me the Body would put out. Again, I wish Alex would push his experiments further than he pushes them. I feel like this song could have hit a bit harder than it does, despite the fact that I do enjoy it for its intensity and its outlier status in not only this album, but Alex’s discography. But, at the end of the day, it’s an angry breakup song that wouldn’t be incredibly remarkable save for the fact that Alex G did it.
If you were hoping for Alex to return to the style of the album’s first 4 songs at this point, you’re still out of luck. “Sportstar” is an autotuned, electronic bit of, I dunno, post-R&B? It sounds like something Alex might have come up with while he was helping out Frank Ocean with “Blonde,” with its evocative lyrics and simple, minimalistic piano line. I wasn’t sure about this track at first, but I think it’s one of the album’s most successful experiments. Rather than end it at the 2-minute mark like he tends to do, Alex builds drums and bass behind the piano line, giving the track a greater sense of completion and finality. This song may not work for everyone, but it certainly works for me.
“Judge” sounds a bit more like an older Alex G song, with its soft drums, guitar, and bass. The song adds some impressive vocal layering and some synthesizers, livening up the mix with its heartbreaking lyrics and horror movie keys. It’s a deep cut, but it’s one of the album’s most outstanding and memorable songs.
This track is followed by “Rocket,” the album’s eponymous song, and a somewhat inconclusive instrumental. It basically starts with a piano melody that eventually adds some layers of violin and guitar, and while it may seem like it doesn’t really make sense here since the first few songs on the album are the only ones that really use this sound, it does make a nice sonic transition into “Powerful Man,” which shares the name of a great song by fellow Philly act Hop Along.
“Powerful Man” is another personal favorite from this album. It’s features perhaps the album’s clearest vocal performance, with a triumphant set of lyrics about learning from others’ mistakes, whether it’s your friend who breaks the law or your mom who seems to have lost all patience with parenthood. Alex envisions himself as someone who will stay down the straight-and-narrow and eventually become a “powerful man,” which to him means being a supportive, hard-working husband/father and not abandoning or hurting those he loves. It’s a surprisingly sweet message on an album full of dark ones, and I love the folk-instrumentation on here, as well as the fact that Alex doesn’t end the track prematurely.
This is followed by the song “Alina,” a track which seems to be about a rebellious girl, although I can’t tell whether this song is supposed to be sad or empowering. Such is the nature of Alex G’s ambiguous songwriting, sometimes, but I still appreciate this song’s many pleasant sonic qualities. He’s great at leaving the audience to decipher what his strange short stories are really about.
The storytelling gets even stranger on “Big Fish,” which messes with my head in a lot of ways. I’m not sure what the first verse is trying to convey, but the verse following the refrain seems to poke at the nature of people going fishing to clear their minds, instead depicting a fish grabbing a rod and catching people, killing them and eating them. It’s another song that feels incomplete, but it’s also an interesting, intriguing narrative.
“Rocket” closes on yet another winner, “Guilty,” which is a few vocal effects away from being a Ween song. Like “Powerful Man,” this song features a very clear vocal performance, alongside some cool additional instrumentation. I like the effect of having a group of people sing this song. In fact, I can’t tell if this is just Alex’s voice layered several times or if it is a bunch of people singing it at once, but either way it’s a great effect, and the jazzy drums mesh with the smooth saxophone and groovy bass in magical ways.
Like many of Alex’s albums, this one is a grower. At first, I thought I didn’t like this one as much as “Beach Music” because not many of these songs stuck with me on first listen except the ones that rubbed me the wrong way. Now, the ones that rubbed me the wrong way don’t anymore, save a couple, and the ones I was indifferent toward are now some of favorite songs Alex has ever written. If you didn’t enjoy this album at first, don’t sleep on it. It’s a bit disjointed, but it’s simultaneously the most cohesive thing Alex has ever written, with some of his best lyrics. I’m not entirely sure yet if this will be one of my favorites of 2017, but it could certainly end up that way with its high quality songs, varying genre experiments, and some of Alex’s most developed and fully-formed songs to date. He may have had to adopt the (Sandy) due to ridiculous copyright bullshit, but he’s put out his most effective and personal statement yet with this new record here, so no love lost, Sandy.
SCORE — 8.0 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Proud, County, Bobby, Sportstar, Judge, Powerful Man, Alina, Big Fish, Guilty