Alex G Has Built A Little Universe All His Own

On Beach Music, his first release for major indie Domino, the prolific songwriter finds strength in simplicity.

My basement was the worst. Dark, damp, and scattered with rusty nails. Other kids had the best basements. They were sanctuaries, almost otherworldly, as if they were detached from the houses on top of them.

Parents had mortgages and yards to mow, kids had their bedrooms, but teenagers had basements with their own rules, inside jokes and language. The growth that happened in a good basement—one with carpets and a big TV and probably some dusty workout equipment—might as well have been happening in a terrarium with a blanket draped over it. To show the world that growth, that hidden world, felt like exposure.

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Alex G, aka Alex Giannascoli, grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, and has managed to take his whole aesthetic—inscrutable inside jokes, recording tics and all—out of his basement and into the outside world unscathed.

Beach Music is the latest in a long line of Alex G LPs that all sound sort of like each other. The difference here is that it’s his first for major indie label Domino, and it’s coming on the heels of his other breakthrough record, last year’s Orchid Tapes-release DSU.

Giannascoli has been releasing albums at such a steady clip—often multiple times a year—that it’ll initially feel overwhelming to dive into his past work. But do it. Beach Music is as good a place as any to start, and listening to it certainly goes a long way toward explaining what it sounds like when a 20-something guy that has internalized Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith and an entire half-decade of forgotten alternative rock bands spits it all back out as deeply personal music that reaches desperately for, and manages to catch hold of, the small comforts of routine.

If Beach Music is meant to be the record where Giannascoli has “made it,” it’s not much of a stretch to hear some reluctance—or at least fear of that fact—on tender tracks like “Thorns.” His voice, like Elliott Smith’s, is fragile and distant. The loneliness in it is inferred. He sings like he doesn’t know anyone else is in the room, and plays like one of those kids at Guitar Center that strums without an amp for hours, creating intricate structures, not even aware that other people are around.

On “Salt” he sings Tonight I wash my hands, I want to be alone, I want to fall today, I wash my hands, I want to be alone, and it’s heartbreaking. There’s no frustration in his voice, no longing. Giannascoli remembers—maybe because for him it wasn’t so long ago—what it feels like to be trapped by his circumstances without any clear view of how to change them. It makes sense then, that he comes off not so much guarded—but unwilling—to go deep on his own music in interviews.

In a recent Grantland profile, he explains that the title for the new album comes from Pat Conroy’s novel Beach Music. It’s not clear if he’s actually read Beach Music, or just saw the book around his house a lot. Maybe he has no intention of reading it. The cover art—which is a painting by his sister of Rama and the monkey god Hanuman embracing—is even more inexplicable. In August, Giannascoli told the FADER, “I have to ask her what the meaning is, but I vaguely remember her talking about it: it's about embracing all sides of yourself.”

Giannascoli spends a lot of time saying that he’s not really sure how his music comes together, or at least, he doesn’t know how to explain it. In the press release for his album he says, “Every song is coming from a different place. It branches off in all these directions, but it has its own sound. It’s not something I do intentionally, but I’m the common thread.”

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It feels like he’s looking for a way to explain how he can make so many of these songs in such a short period of time, and how he does it so consistently. Beach Music moves from shambling guitar (“Bug”) to fragile waltz (“Thorns”) to—somehow—dusky jazz (“In Love”). The intro for the album is a lo-fi scrum of electronics fizzing into an aggressive guitar breakdown. Midway through “Bug,” the very next song on the album, Giannascoli modulates his voice into an otherworldly high pitched whine, it’s never been clear why he did this on previous records, and it might just be some inside joke. It’s inscrutable, but it works.

So much of Giannascoli’s music is like that. It doesn’t feel like it’s for anyone, even though plenty of people are listening. We’re all on the outside, and there’s a ceiling on how much we’ll be able to understand. The closest we get is on “Look Out,” a brilliant, sad, late-night bedroom synth piece. Giannascoli sounds like a ghost, half-singing through glittering keys and the gentle, quiet thrum of a drum machine. It doesn’t feel like we’re supposed to be hearing it.

Giannascoli’s seems singularly devoted to providing vignettes into his universe, unencumbered by the worry of making a single, or helping anyone to understand what he’s trying to get at. We listen and watch his progress, hoping to see something of ourselves in him, or at least to gain access to his strange, secret world. That’s a lot of weight to put on someone who basically just wants to keep making music the same way he always has, but it also goes a long way to explain the almost defiant sameness of Beach Music in relation to the rest of the Alex G catalogue. It’s just another album, and another one will come after that. They’ll keep coming out, whether we’re paying attention or not.

That's why Beach Music hits so hard. It sounds like the comfort, the weird jokes, the stupid plans, the idealized version of adult life we were pretending to understand. It’s kinda aimless in a way that I miss. It perfectly captures the assured simplicity of feeling too complicated for anyone to really understand, without realizing, or even caring, that there are plenty of people out there that do.

Alex G Has Built A Little Universe All His Own