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(Sandy) Alex G’s ‘House of Sugar’ Is a Weird, Weighted Blanket for the Soul

On his most polished album to date, the mesmerizing singer and Frank Ocean collaborator weaves sonic tapestries made of common threads

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In April 2017, on the eve of releasing a gorgeous, sorrowful record called Rocket, the Philadelphia-area musician born Alex Giannascoli announced suddenly that he was changing his stage name, from Alex G to (Sandy) Alex G. The reason wasn’t entirely clear. “We are unable to provide further comment at this time,” said his record label, Domino. Giannascoli has never quite explained it, but there was another artist—an inspirational female songwriter/YouTube personality from Colorado—who went by Alex G, and by 2017 both were having enough success in their respective spheres to cause some confusion. Giannascoli and his grungy, shaggy-dog band once showed up to a gig in Portland, only to find a young audience member crying at the sight of them. Apparently she drove two hours to come see the other Alex G“,” he later recalled, “and it was just my dumb ass.”

Sandy is the title character of a song Giannascoli released in 2011, one of many tuneful, bedroom-recorded oddities he uploaded to Bandcamp with little fanfare or biographical information, slowly but surely building a devoted fan base. “My name is Sandy, I’m 14 years old,” Giannascoli sings softly, over a finger-picked acoustic guitar riff that has the rhythm of nervous hands knitting. “My friends say I’m ugly / but my dad says I’m the prettiest thing.” Sandy continues to familiarize us with the quiet mythology of her family life (“My brother says he hates me / and Satan is his master”) before concluding the song with a repeated, nakedly emotional chant, “Right now I just wanna grow up, I just wanna grow up, I just wanna grow up …” The song is an economical character sketch, not to mention a tender exercise in empathy. For Giannascoli to add Sandy’s name parenthetically beside his own years later feels like a gesture toward his project’s large-hearted ethos. Though he often writes and records in solitude, his music has a blurry plurality to it, an openness that makes room for something bigger than just a single self. With his distorted vocals and oblique character studies, (Sandy) Alex G is a pitch-shifted everyperson, weaving sonic tapestries made of common threads. As he sings on “Southern Sky,” a twangy, aching ditty from House of Sugar, his new album out on Friday, “You and me—these are titles I can hardly speak.”

House of Sugar is (Sandy) Alex G at his most polished, and yet his songs still have the feel of falling together by lucky accident—like a fistful of Scrabble tiles that just so happen to spell out a 76-point word in the exact order they’re pulled. But, like Pavement a generation or so before him, the rough-around-the-edges slacker aesthetic of Giannascoli’s music can occasionally distract you from the precision of his songcraft, or the creative drive it takes for someone to be as prolific as he is. Like internet-native indie contemporaries Car Seat Headrest and Frankie Cosmos, Giannascoli has been uploading music to Bandcamp for so long that it seems to pour out of him at a steady drip. It can be difficult—and entirely beside the point—to differentiate between demos and “official” (Sandy) Alex G releases; by most counts, House of Sugar is the 26-year-old’s ninth album. Though his back catalog might seem daunting, House of Sugar is as inviting an entry point to his warped, immersive world as he’s ever released.

On the record’s mesmerizing first single, “Gretel,” Giannascoli once again sings from the perspective of a young girl. This time, she’s in a more fantastical story than Sandy’s; her brother is Hansel. “It’s calling me back / house of sugar,” he sings atop a patchy, layered, guitar-driven track. However abstractly, Giannascoli has said that he considers the song to be a more cynical retelling of the Hansel and Gretel myth, in which her brother is eaten alive by a witch and still all Gretel can do is obsess about going back to her house to binge on more sweets. “Everything that I do, and everything that everyone does—you’re just gobbling up everything around you,” he explained in a recent Fader cover story. “Everyone’s selfish.” Despite its dark heart, though, the song is beguilingly catchy, revolving around a looping, chipmunk-voiced refrain. It’s like a candy from another country: The first time I heard it I couldn’t quite get a handle on what I was experiencing. Within a few plays, I started craving it. It’s hypnotic. All told, I have probably listened to “Gretel” more than any other song to come out this year.

While he was on tour in the U.K. a few years ago, Alex got an email asking if he was interested in collaborating with an artist with whom he was only vaguely familiar. He said sure. After that, every few months, he would fly out to L.A. to record some guitar parts for what would eventually become Frank Ocean’s paradigm-shifting pair of 2016 releases, Endless and Blonde. “I don’t know why it happened,” he has said. “But that’s how it happened.”

One of Giannascoli’s most memorable contributions to Blonde is the soulful, unassuming guitar part on the first half of “Self Control”—a song that, three long years after its release, still has the power to wreck my entire day. Most of it is just Frank and Alex, the latter fingering a plangent little chord progression as casually as a guy noodling on his porch. Plenty of people in the unpretentious DIY scene Giannascoli inhabited were surprised that he had been tapped by one of his generation’s most elusive superstars, but on record—and on stage, when Giannascoli toured in Ocean’s band—they rhymed. Both were talented but disillusioned industry outsiders who’d found peace in keeping their heads down and focusing on the work. Both knew how to capture something specific about the fucked-up-ness of the world right now, and to push past it toward the glow of some kind of emotional purity.

Terrible things happen in (Sandy) Alex G’s songs, but their sonic makeup provides the possibility of comfort, too—the warm, heavy layers of his music are like a weighted blanket for the soul. “Hope,” the second song on House of Sugar, begins with a jarring, vivid lyric:

He was a good friend of mine, he died
Why write about it now?
Gotta honor him somehow
Yeah, saw some people crying that night
Yeah, fentanyl took a few lives from our life, all right

Though Giannascoli likes to keep the boundary between truth and fiction blurry in his songs, he has conceded that this one is personal; a few years ago, someone he was living with in a house on Philadelphia’s Hope Street overdosed. Still, as he said in that Fader interview, “I don’t want that to be the story of the album. It’s just one of the songs. I don’t want that to have any more weight than other songs.” It’s somehow more powerful that way, though—baked into the song you can hear the honest hesitation to lay claim to a dead man’s story (“Why write about it now?”) and the sad, shrugging ordinariness of such an occurrence. The drug “took a few lives”; this one wasn’t the first and is unlikely to be the last. A grander, more overblown approach would run the risk of exploiting tragedy. Alex’s humble, muttered homage suggests, in just the right tone, the awful truth that this is just something that happens now.

Elsewhere, Giannascoli slips into character. The glitchy, electro-country jam “Bad Man” finds him singing in a cartoonish, exaggerated twang—an extremely alternate-universe “Old Town Road.” It’s a fun song, but the lyrics haunt: “When the bomb dropped I was 22 / Buried under black dirt, how about you?” The acoustic “In My Arms” is more traditional and straight-faced—I swear it shares at least two chords with Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”—but even Giannascoli’s take on a love ballad has a sinister edge. As he croons a little forebodingly, “You know good music makes me wanna do bad things.”

House of Sugar is the kind of record that makes you think the clock is a liar; it’s so expansive and covers so much terrain that it’s hard to believe the thing is only 38 minutes long. (I can think of no other record that feels as indebted to Harvest-era Neil Young as it does to Oneohtrix Point Never.) By the final track, you might think you’re ready for whatever curveball Giannascoli is about to throw—and then somehow, you’re not. Named for a sprawling riverfront casino in Philly, “SugarHouse” is the most Bruce Springsteen song Bruce Springsteen never wrote, bleary-eyed saxophone accompaniment and all. Giannascoli reaches for notes just above his vocal range, convincingly selling the part of someone who’s been up for days, gambling in the endless artificial daylight of a casino. “You never really met me, / I don’t think anyone has,” he sings, a line that—goddamn!—leaves you clutching your gut before you even realize you were punched. “But we can still be players together / Let SugarHouse pick up the tab.”

Like a more grown-up version of candy-crazed Gretel, or a less doomed version of that friend who overdosed, Giannascoli once again embodies a character who’s trying to fill some sort of void. The fix doesn’t last, but it seems to offer a brief moment of anonymity—you don’t know my name, I don’t know yours—that provides fleeting relief from the pressures of being an individual, self-determined person in the world. “SugarHouse” might be the most straightforwardly appealing song Giannascoli has ever recorded, but he still gives it an unvarnished surface: The version on the record was recorded live in concert and contains all the subtle, lovable imperfections of its performance. Even on a record full of them, it’s an odd choice. To paraphrase the comedian Joe Pera talking about the violin solo at the end of “Baba O’Riley,” it’s like Alex realized he wrote the perfect song, panicked, and decided to put the live version on the record instead. But that version gives the song a lovely, eerie distance, and it heightens the sense of collective unconscious that’s always somewhere in Giannascoli’s music. When the song is over, a modest crowd cheers. Out in their lives these people are individuals, but in that moment, they’re something communal: a crowd, united in an act larger than themselves. They are listening and Alex is telling them a story.