The popularity of a truly great musician is in some ways just a matter of luck. Some musicians like say, David Byrne, have little in the ways of traditional vocal ability but make up for their shortcomings through an innate knack for melody and instrumentation. They use the timbre of their thin voices to carry the structure of the song instead of just hitting the requisite notes. Some singers often have the opposite issue; relying too heavily on their singular skill and letting the rest fall by the wayside. This is the reason most singing competitions don’t find someone as universally indelible as Paul McCartney or Beyoncé. It takes more than just singing well for people to like you.
Other musicians simply don’t have much in the way of diversity. As great as they are, bands like The Strokes have always had limitations put onto them, and to an extent, limitations they may have put on to themselves. It’s easy for a band to be pigeonholed into the style that made them famous but often it’s the left turns that end up being an artist’s crowning achievement. The moment when Willie Nelson or Ray Charles proved to us they could take a selection of standards, be it “Tin Pan Alley” or “Nashville Country”, and make them their own was also the moment they created their most enduring recordings – and even topped the charts.
Alex Giannascoli is one of the rare musicians who seems to skirt all of his shortcomings and transcend the worst of these pitfalls. Although he doesn’t have the technical prowess of the best singers in the world, he is versatile enough to sing everything from lighthearted country to abrasive industrial-noise – and compelling enough to put it all on the same album. Giannascoli binds that flexibility with excellent pop craftsmanship; even letting his most experimental tendencies find their way deep into the recesses of your brain. His albums are constantly weaving around through unorthodox twists and turns and although he hasn’t released a single album that is sure to alienate his fan base, at the same time you never know what one of his albums is going to sound like until you hear it.
That’s what explains his devoted fan base, he is a singular entity that seems to be able to use his clearly defined technical skills to create an endless amount of diverse music. Leading up to his new album’s release this year that enthusiasm was also its biggest hurdle. After 2017’s high-watermark Rocket, Giannascoli had to convince his growing following that he hadn’t peaked and his critics that he would continue moving forward. House of Sugar succeeds in its requisite goals, any listener entering around Rocket or his label debut DSU in 2014 or even those who have been listening to his self-released albums on Bandcamp going back to 2010, will not be disappointed.
Writing for House of Sugar began back in 2017, immediately after the release of Rocket but prior to that album’s tour, and that may explain the strength of its material. Although the finished product is distinct from its predecessor, the songs themselves feel cut from the same cloth as Rocket.
Giannascoli begins the album with very different, overlayed tracks that chime and roil together as the song builds to its apex. “Walk Away” is at times beautifully catchy and increasingly discordant with the lyrics “not today, someday I’m gonna walk away from you,” repeated over and over and only gradually becoming more comprehensible. As the longest song here, it never feels abrupt or meandering, flexing its cascading vocals as a natural outcome of confusion. As the song ends and the competing pieces of music join together, the product becomes mesmerising.
Faithful enough, he follows it up with the spritely “Hope” – a song that immediately builds into a euphoric strummer. “Southern Sky” and “Gretel” keep the first half of this record upbeat and chorus-centric while also introducing Molly Germer’s violin and vocal duties. Beneath these blissful melodies, Giannascoli teases at the layered experimentation that’s beginning to emerge on the album.
“Taking” opens with reversed guitar, while “Near” and “Project 2” feel like two pieces of distinctly alien studio work that are both heavily indebted to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (1985). Almost as a slight, it turns out the most dramatically different and strangest song might be “Bad Man”. With Giannascoli’s tongue pressed firmly against his cheek, he delivers a bucolic country-ballad, pitching his voice into an almost yodel. In weaker hands this track would come off as more sarcastic than anything else, but the strength of the lyrics and his sheer charisma makes it surprisingly refreshing.
“Cow” and “Crime” provide a couple of melancholy pretty ear candy that round out the end of the album before the seemingly tacked-on finale. “SugarHouse – Live” is a Springsteen-esque heartland anthem telling a similar, if more specific story to that of “Walk Away”. It references the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia, which in turn lends itself to the album’s namesake. It’s a great little respite at the end of House of Sugar that, thanks to the audience, has no trouble selling its lovesick message. Even when Giannascoli should be at his most disingenuous, songs like these still manage to be entirely convincing.
Unlike Rocket, which felt like a collection of stellar songs that were sometimes at odds with each other, House of Sugar is a stellar collection of songs that form a much greater whole. Throughout his prolific career, Giannascoli has continued to surpass his perceived limitations, growing as a songwriter and honing in on is innate ear for melody. House of Sugar proves to be more than just a victory lap, both improving on his formula and taking his discography into new terrain. Like any (Sandy) Alex G album it is endlessly rewarding on multiple listens – simple enough to appreciate the first time but dense enough to reward the most obsessive fans. It just might be his best album yet.