“Is the truth trapped behind iron lock and key?” asks Alex Giannascoli on “Guilty,” the closing track of his excellent new album, Rocket. When it comes to his music, the answer is a resounding yes.
Six years ago, the Philadelphia-based musician began releasing his lo-fi bedroom recordings on Bandcamp, with double-tracked vocals that’ve inspired some knee-jerk comparisons to the late Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Giannascoli—who now records and performs under the moniker (Sandy) Alex G, after another musician trademarked the name Alex G in late 2015—isn’t all that much like Smith, but his experimental pop does have a similarly cultish following.
For someone who’s only spent 24 years on this planet, he’s already pretty prolific. Giannascoli’s released seven full-length records, and was invited to play guitar on Frank Ocean’s new albums Endless and Blonde. But he’s hesitant to say much about his own music. In an interview with Bandcamp last month, Giannascoli addressed this caginess, citing his fear that learning the meaning behind songs could “destroy the mystery.”
“It’s tricky,” he tells me over the phone. “If someone asks me about [a lyric], it’s my inclination to tell them. But I’m trying to get better at catching myself, because I really do believe it hurts the effect the music could have on a listener if they know more about it... When I was younger and I got really attached to music, it was ’cause I fabricated this whole thing around who the singer was, and who the song was about, and how it could especially relate to me, you know. And so if someone says they like my music and I’m like, ‘Well, this song is about a hot dog’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I thought that was about a hamburger,’ then it destroys the effect.”
Many of Giannascoli’s songs are written as narratives, where he describes the lives of recurring characters with arcs that span multiple albums. For instance, someone named Bobby is mentioned on the track “New” from 2012’s Rules, and later reappears on Rocket. These characters represent abstractions of his own experiences, and live in this purgatory between himself and listeners—“That way I can explore whatever I want without it being specific to me,” Giannascoli says. “Whether or not those songs are about me.”
His albums all exist within the realm of guitar pop, but occasionally roam into unfamiliar territory. Rocket heads deep into Americana with prominent bass lines, banjo, twangy guitar, and the introduction of violinist Molly Germer. There are a few anomalies, like the Auto-Tuned ballad “Sportstar” and the Beastie Boys-sounding hardcore rap track “Brick.” Glimmers of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shine through “Powerful Man” and “Proud,” while the duet “Bobby” follows Germer’s fiery violin melody.
“My thought process when I was starting to make songs like ‘Bobby’ and ‘Proud’ was sort of like being a troll, like making country music because I knew people would shit on it,” he says. “And then I realized it was turning out kind of good, so I was like, I might as well take it all the way and put the whole fucking thing, like banjo, on it.”
But these 14 songs don’t simply represent Giannascoli’s foray into a new genre. They perfectly capture the boredom of young adulthood, when nothing feels as intense as it did when you were a teenager, so you keep throwing things at the wall, hoping they’ll stick. For Rocket, country stuck—Giannascoli’s longevity will likely be determined by his willingness to keep throwing things.