If the phrase House of Sugar sounds at all familiar, you've likely spent some time in Fishtown, the location of the SugarHouse Casino after which (Sandy) Alex G's latest album is named. A Philadelphia resident himself, Alex Giannascoli, who typically goes by Alex G, recorded the album between releasing and touring 2017's Rocket, a mixture of acoustic alt-country and heavily-distorted weirdo DIY.
The similarities between Rocket and House of Sugar are immediately apparent: acoustic tracks like "Southern Sky" and "Cow" align perfectly with the folksy "Powerful Man" and "Poison Root," but all are eerily off–kilter in difficult–to–pinpoint ways, such as the foreboding chorus in "Southern Sky": "It's okay, we don't cry/ we love the Southern Sky." House of Sugar, however, departs from the third–person narratives presented in Rocket, and instead delves deeper into Giannascoli's point of view.
This is foreshadowed by the strange opener "Walk Away," a garbled and repetitive track with only the lyrics "Someday I'm gonna walk away from you/ not today." Within one sentence, Giannascoli perfectly encapsulates the circuitous nature of addiction, a theme that runs throughout his music, such as in "Memory" from 2012's Trick when he sings, "I was waiting for a baggie/ a powder bunny" or in "Sorry" from 2014's DSU (short for Dream State University) when he sings, "I'll get my cure/ wait in the car/ I won't remember/ who you are." This idea is elaborated on in "Hope," an oddly literal song for Alex G, who typically shrouds songs in colloquialisms and disjointed scenes. In "Hope," he sings about the death of a friend to an overdose of Fentanyl while living in a home on Hope Street, located in Kensington.
Addiction comes in all forms, Giannascoli reminds us in this album. The title directly alludes to gambling as another form, but also greed as a vice when it comes to interpersonal relationships and human consumption. House of Sugar also is a reference to the story of Hansel and Gretel and the witch's house of candy. In Giannascoli's version, however, Gretel abandons her brother to escape, while he loses himself to his appetite. In "Gretel," he sings, "I don’t wanna be this/ good people gotta fight to exist," reflecting the pessimistic view by which Alex G views humanity to explain his revision of the fairy tale.
From "Gretel," the album descends into less typical song structures, perhaps evoking the chaos which Giannascoli sees in society, with songs like "Near" and "Taking" elaborating on the themes of greed, desire, and addiction presented, but boiled down into raw emotion rather than narratives. By "Project 2", Alex G forgoes words for solely electronic synths and beats. Some order is reconciled in "Bad Man," although it is by far the worst song on the album, a hokey electronic–folk fusion with Alex G singing in an ungodly hillbilly accent, cheapening the sentiment of a song about the atrocities of war.
In "In My Arms" and the remaining tracks on the album, Alex G returns to the folk–rock tropes that he explored on Rocket. One can hear some Jackson Browne, with whom Giannascoli bears a passing resemblance, in the song "In My Arms," and there's a little Springsteen in the vocals for the album's closer, "SugarHouse." These last four tracks show Alex G at his most sincere, given the often heavily pitch–shifted and ironic nature of his music.
"In My Arms," in particular, is as close to an all–out anthem as fans of Giannascoli's could expect, while "Cow" is one of few love songs he's produced, although it's unclear whether or not it's a literal cow to which he sings "You big old cow/ you draw me out/ lie on the ground/ kiss on the mouth."
It's songs like these that make House of Sugar truly notable, that balance the twisted logic for which Alex G songs are known and the sincerity that comes from experience and various influences, plus some acoustic guitar to add to his blue–collar persona. "Southern Sky" rises as the highlight simply due to the ambiguous, trance–like state that it invokes, not unlike that of the recent cult–hit film (pun intended), Midsommar. Giannascoli's lyrics deconstructing memories and dreams, combined with the bittersweet violin of Molly Germer, build this track into one of Alex G's finest hits.
Although the scope of House of Sugar ranges from criticisms of consumer culture to an examination of his own mind, it remains one of his more personal albums, focused more on telling his story rather than fictionalized accounts. In "SugarHouse," he sings, "You never really met me/ I don’t think anyone has/ but we can still be players together/ let SugarHouse pick up the tab," showing how distant he keeps himself from his art. But when he lets down his guard, that's when House of Sugar is at its sweetest.