It seems fitting that (Sandy) Alex G––Pennsylvania’s 26-year-old lo-fi rock star––should choose to release his latest LP, House of Sugar, at the outset of the annual month-long vortex of anxiety and melancholy that we call September. Indeed, his music elicits just the sort of adolescent moodiness that always precedes the changing of the leaves, as if its inspiration were based squarely in New England high school bedrooms. Oscillating between subdued droning and outbursts of squeaking vocals, his distinctive style has, since his debut album, DSU (2014), captured the uncanny 16-year-old feeling of being at once irredeemably trapped and on the precipice of unthinkable bliss.
But on his latest project, House of Sugar, (Sandy) Alex G uses familiar components to new ends, graduating from his high school phase to explore the whimsy, magic, and darkness of everyday rural life in a series of ballads and electronic riffs that feel like indie rock made for farmers in a claymation fairy tale. On House of Sugar, the poppy, campy Alex G we’ve known and (some of us) loved for years grows up.
Bright-eyed, teenage hopes dreams collide with the darkness and despair unique to the Septembers of life: the times in between eras, the sort of tenuous schisms and fault lines that divide the five or six more or less stable epochs in an average (rural, at least) lifetime. As is sometimes the case in rural life itself, the world in House of Sugar is amplified like light in a glass orb, or a greenhouse, reflecting pretty mundane stuff back and forth until it swells into a romanticized ideal bordering on self-parody.
The front half of the LP is packed with straightforward (by comparison) bangers, with “Hope,” “Southern Sky,” and “Gretel,” arguably three of Alex G’s strongest and most accessible tunes to date, lined up back to back. On “Hope,” there isn’t a hair out of place: it’s the highest form of Alex’s trademark style––practically perfected, even glossy. “Southern Sky,” on the other hand, is a depressed bluesy ballad made up of rose-tinted rural memories, drawn up with childlike sincerity and painted in vivid pastels––reds and blues, like a bleeding sky. On the muddy, somewhat gritty but immediately accessible and addictive track “Gretel,” Alex sings, “It’s calling me back / House of Sugar / Did they bury me here?” thereby opening the door to the House of Sugar, a shimmering, but, eventually, crushing palace of hedonism and delight. While this top-heavy structure might seem to upset the album’s center of gravity, this imbalance is actually crucial to setting up the sort of “growing up” or “waking up” narrative sewn into its back half. These three early tracks establish the sort of vague, romantic optimism and wonder whose interplay with the next four tracks’ twisted picture of reality (addiction, nightmares, etc.) makes up the album’s main dynamic.
The transition from the sugary first few tracks to the sort of supernatural, often hellish, realism woven into the album’s more experimental segments revolves around two mostly unpleasant (but eminently necessary) tracks, “Taking” and “Near,” each of which is adorned with odd electronic reverb and artificial vocal manipulation. Throughout these cuts we get the same inane vocal melodies repeated percussively and torturously in almost cult-like or Satanic fashion. These two tracks lead the listener blindfolded by hand from the sonic equivalent of a creaky-quiet straw-chewing porch of a farmhouse out into an enchanted forest where, at least on their first several listens, the listener will feel uncomfortable, scared, barefoot and desirous of breezy songs like “Southern Sky” and “Hope.” But, as often happens, it is in this murky territory that some of the most compelling ideas on House of Sugar bubble up from (Sandy) Alex G’s latest witches’ brew of rural romanticism and supernatural fascination.
In particular, “Project 2”, “Sugar”, and “SugarHouse (Live)” are among Alex’s oddest and most interesting experiments to date. “Project 2” feels spontaneous and hallucinatory, like an auditory daydream. But the dark tone of “Taking” and “Near” holds its ground on “Project 2,” making for an ethereal trip ever riding the line between daydream and night terror––and a highlight on the album. But the true pinnacle of House of Sugar’s sugarcoated nightmares is “Sugar,” which feels like an organ accompaniment to a cultish gathering of gingerbread men or something, conjuring (somehow, in an unplaceable way) images of tiny, evil toys. This track, though sonically the most dissimilar from the rest, functions as the thematic fulcrum of the album. It consists of vocals distorted past the point of coherency over a grandiose, regal instrumental––a sort of gold-plated nightmare whose gloss and grandeur underscore its twisted overtones. But even on this intensely fantastical song apparently devoid of connection to reality, the (barely intelligible) lyrics remain firmly rooted in soft rural imagery: “You will be a bird / All of my life / Whirl in the air / Speck in the sky.” Here, (Sandy) Alex G’s quaint, moody daydreams on previous albums have progressed, landing far from their sonic root while maintaining their underlying spirit––albeit more mature, and confronting an increasingly desolate, ugly world.
House of Sugar is littered with other compelling (but less immediately discussable) rural ballads like “Cow” and “Crime”, not to mention the bizarre, parodic “Bad Man”, with its overblown, obnoxious vocals over a lovely guitar progression. It’s scattered and sometimes jarring, but Alex’s latest album offers plenty of moments of melodic respite, like the simple, romantic “In My Arms”.
House of Sugar is at its core an album about wonder, lust, addiction, terror, and recovery (in that precise order). It’s about dreams and real life, and (in particular) the pervasion of each into the other. Opiate and gambling addictions are embodied by the “sugar house” itself, the home of all deadly, siren-esque, seductive things. The song “Hope”, for instance, is an ode to a friend who died from an opiate overdose; Alex sings, “Yeah, Fentanyl took a few lives from our life.” On the song “SugarHouse (Live)”, a campy wailing ballad named after the prominent casino of the same name, Alex sings, “Feels like I’m always waiting / for another chance to play the game,” then more desperately, “I wanna be there with you somehow / but the SugarHouse calling my bluff,” and finally on the brink of death, “Let ‘em bury me in the sand / where our children go digging for answers / I hope they can put me together again.” It’s as if the SugarHouse lures in young adults, like Alex, who have outgrown but remain preoccupied with the thrill of adolescence, and hijacks the pleasure center of their brain, ultimately bringing about their own (self-)destruction.
(Sandy) Alex G handles the topic of addiction with an eye for reality; that is, the reality of dreams: drug use is, at its core, a symptom of intense longing and awe and the desire to juice life to a pulp. Heroin is said to “relieve the pressures of everyday life, like having to tie your shoes,” as Bob describes it in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). This might sound trivial, but that’s exactly what makes it such a pointed explanation of the draw of opiates: it’s not the big things, like divorce or death, that weigh people down minute-to-minute; rather, it’s the slow, enduring pileup of daily chores and duties that aggregate in the body like another organ in the chest, gathering anxieties and swelling out against the ribcage. Heroin, like a needle, pops this abscess. Really, addiction to heroin is a revolt against this other organ, a product of the magnifying greenhouse-like effect of small-town confinement. Drugs aren’t about dark alleyways and dirty needles. They’re about houses of sugar, of fantasy lands and palaces in the sky. House of Sugar takes us to these places, into the real labyrinths of drug addiction, the landscapes and dreamscapes where the whole thing actually goes down.
Alex is growing up, and so is his music. On House of Sugar, the shadow side of rural life––one replete with intravenous drugs and livelihoods staked on slot machines––gets its much-needed theme song. It’s scary in a quiet way, free from adrenaline, like a nightmare only half-felt and half-seen during the deepest sleep, with the sleeper so caught up in subconscious churnings that fear is abstracted and desolate. It’s a drowsy 38 minutes, but wake up and listen up: this is the soundtrack to the crises of here and now.