Album review: “House of Sugar” is a rumination on life’s most important elements and is Alex G’s best work yet
Music and Society Editor
Daniel Johnston passed away last week at 58. Without him, this album or Alex G would never have existed.
Johnston was “the” independent musician, fundamentally rocking popular conceptions of music throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Working with a shoddy keyboard and acoustic guitar recorded on tape with a simple boombox, Johnston created lo-fi music. He was a revolutionary for having the courage and motivation to be an artist regardless of the circumstances. His off-key voice, thrifted instruments and less-than-ideal basement studio were no barriers to his prolific creativity that captured the vulnerability and pain of the human spirit in unimaginable ways.
In his time, Johnston was revered by artists such as Kurt Kobain and laid the groundwork for future musicians. (Sandy) Alexander Giannascoli embraces Johnston’s ethos and has leveraged it in the internet era, distinguishing himself as the premier lo-fi musician of the 2010s.
A multi-instrumentalist, Philadelphian and melodic virtuoso, Alex G has been releasing albums since 2010 with his most recent offering “House of Sugar” being the eighth entry into his official discography. Alex G’s success is largely in part due to his dozens upon dozens of “unreleased” songs circulating around the internet spanning from demos to songs from his high school band. The body of his work paints a portrait of an artist who has an implacable desire to write — the fruits of his labor being gorgeous and bountiful.
“House of Sugar” is a culmination of Alex G’s career and evolution as one of this generation’s most important musicians. At only 26, the depth of his work is so vast that listening to his new material feels like having transversed many lifetimes. His songwriting and lyrics are aged and experienced, learned from the journey of existence. “House of Sugar” holds a saddened but hopeful perspective on life, recognizing its pain but finding its beauty.
The album’s opener, “Walk Away,” begins with a high pitched lyrical whine complemented by massive drums that give levity to Alex G’s words. He dynamically sings about circles of self-destruction and the trap of vowing to make change one day while in a state of idleness.
Immediately taking the listener’s breath away, “Hope” is the realization of these aforementioned themes. “He was a good friend of mine / He died / Why I write about it now? / Gotta honor him somehow,” G sings in elegy to an overdose of a friend that he personally witnessed. This stunning reflection feels all too relevant in the midst of the opioid crisis impacting everyone in America.
“Gretel” warns against hedonism and is possibly the best song Alex G has ever created. It retells the story of Hansel and Gretel as an allegory of getting trapped in a “house of sugar.” Escaping the house is akin to resisting adversity and struggling to live purely and authentically. Tonally, the haunting pitched vocals, acoustic runs and bombastic drums give it an anthemic sound, elevated with a magnetically catchy melody.
“House of Sugar” blends more experimental sounds like on “Near” with rounds of edited vocals harmonizing in repetition, but shines the most on its more simplistic folk tracks, showcasing Alex G’s impeccable guitar playing and strong lyricism. “Southern Sky” includes fiddle, a saloon-like piano and country-western guitar that gorgeously pair with Alex G and Emily Yacina’s voices singing about preserving memory and making sure not to take anything in life for granted. “Cow” has some of the most evocative imagery on the album, painting a vignette of small-town rural life with lusciously produced vocals. “I dream of deep sea / That it should swallow me / And pitch me up on some wave / Put me down tenderly,” G sings.
The 13 songs on “House of Sugar” represent the fleeting pursuit of pleasure, acknowledging that emotions and feelings are vibrant but eventually dissipate, leaving us only with our humanity: selves and earth. Each song fits into the narrative as a humanistic vignette of joy, pain and existence — things that Alex G has discovered and dreams of for us as well.