The Boy You Knew: A Review of Alex G’s New Album DSU

I first encountered Alex Giannascoli in 2011. It was my freshman year, and my friend Henry and I were in a state of flight from our awkward, long-haired, middle school selves. That’s sort of what starting high school is: a running away from the old and a race to define the new. And we found our new selves in underground music. We began to experience the thrill of finding great music in the cracks and corners of life, a youthful sense of coming across some great, undiscovered secret (not that I’m a sage now . . . I’m now entering my freshman year in college, I enjoy the same things, and I still feel like that awkward middle school boy. Eternal return, I guess.)

Alex G was a paradigm for this kind of discovery. Henry had found a song called “Nintendo 64” by a band called the Skin Cells, the name of Alex Giannascoli’s project at the time. He wasn’t really connected to any of the bands we listened to at the time, nor did he live near us, but we connected with the song immediately. It had this eerie, repeating riff that played throughout the whole song, accompanied by whispery, layered vocal tracks. The lyrics were childlike and filled with random recollections of throwing up in his girlfriend’s sink and playing his Nintendo 64. Alex had this way of bringing you into his inner world, where his thoughts are intertwined with layers of guitar and white noise. Although no one knew who he was, he began to attain a rock star status within my circle of friends. That was the fun of it; he was this mystery boy who quietly wrote the best music from some discreet location.

 

The Skin Cells eventually played in my town, but the show wasn’t particularly elucidating. Alex was friendly but quiet; he played his tunes, and that was that. I booked him for a show at some point later that year, and the only thing I picked up through our messages was that he was kind and humble. “Thanks for thinking of us.” By some chance happening , Alex entered the thoughts of complete strangers.

Three more years of recording entire albums in his room, Alex is finally receiving the recognition he always deserved. At some juncture, the project shifted from the Skin Cells to Alex G and the change in moniker signifies his robustness as a musician; after all, you can’t break up with yourself. With each release, his music has grown stronger, and the same stands true for his new full-length DSU. While earlier records of his such as Race felt like a collection of different ideas and experiments juxtaposed by a few really strong tracks, everything fuses into one with this record. There’s less of a disparity between short, experimental tracks and more traditionally structured songs. Atmospheric tracks like “Serpent is Gone” and “Icehead” feel fleshed out and fully formed. Many of the songs speak quietly, working around repeating riffs and grooving slowly. However, the music consistently retains an ethereal, forlorn atmosphere that links the songs together and makes DSU feel like an album.

But while DSU is certainly a step forward, it sounds so familiar. It’s the same Alex from 2011, just louder and bigger. Multiple layers of vocals, synths, and guitars still dominate the mix. His voice still has this high-pitched, anxious shrill that recalls Elliott Smith. But most importantly, the album just feels like Alex G. Often when I listen to music, I place myself directly in the position of the singer (sometimes I even shamelessly picture myself as the singer). But I can’t really do that with Alex G’s music — connecting with his music is more like connecting with a friend, in both your similarities and differences, in the ways you know him and the ways you don’t.

And in many ways, Alex G still feels like that same mystery boy. This is partially because I don’t know him. But it’s something about him as well. He has a quiet stage presence and this long black hair that falls onto his face. His lyrics often come in the form of fragmented stories that the listener will never really know or understand. But for all of his quietness as a vocalist, Alex’s voice shines through his guitar work. DSU is packed with amazing guitar work, from pacing, subtle chord progressions to feedback-ridden guitar leads. Much of the guitar work is reminiscent of Joey Santiago from the Pixies, in the way his guitar leads cry out. His chord progressions are unorthodox yet they come together in a really coherent way. He’s able to convey a wide array of moods and sounds often within the same song. Much of this is a product of his recording style; as someone who records all of the instruments by himself, he has the freedom to construct his own little worlds of sound that immerse the listener. The ethereal sounds of his music capture the isolated environment in which he records.

DSU is Alex G’s strongest songwriting effort yet. There are a number of hard-hitting tracks that hold their own outside of the context of the album. Songs like “Boy” and “Harvey” fall on the more upbeat side; “Harvey” is particularly beautiful in the way that it starts off as a full sounding pop song about success then breaks down into a drumless, ethereal reflection on love for (presumably) his younger brother. But with the darker songs, there’s an opaque but nonetheless strong feeling of pain that hits home. His obscured lyrics only strengthen the despair of it, the sort of hurt that you can feel but can’t share with others (“pariah kid, lost in a game/could you forgive me for that pain.”) The song “Hollow” is the heaviest song on DSU, both in sound and in content. It builds slowly and mournfully, with a descending, distorted guitar that brings a sense of urgency. When Alex sings “Swallow this, you made a big mistake,” you can feel the weight of his words in your chest, like an Elliott Smith song. A similar moment occurs in “Black Hair”: “It’s not what you are, it’s just what you did/Don’t hang up the phone, I love you to death/Eternal return.” You don’t know who he’s addressing or what he or she did, but you know it’s serious.

DSU certainly has its flaws. “Promise”, a track which features a Seinfeld-esque bass line, sounds akin to a garageband experiment made in a state of boredom. The songs are often too ambient and jammy – it would be interesting to see how Alex would work with a full band and whether it would give more structure and clarity to his ideas. And sometimes I wish Alex made his lyrics clearer in their meaning; “Icehead” feels like a really beautiful song, but I have no idea what “bad man can’t grow a hole all right” is supposed to convey.

But without these idiosyncrasies, I don’t know if it would still be Alex G. There’s a child-like sense of experimentation that defines his work. I don’t always know what Alex is saying, but I can feel a strong sense of the person who’s saying it. DSU shows how far Alex has come since 2011, but it also bears witness to that same mystery boy behind the bandcamp page. He’s been able to gain recognition through persistently being himself. And for me, there’s a great shock of time in seeing him reviewed by Rolling Stone. It’s a good sort of shock, like seeing an old friend do really great things and move up in life. He’s always deserved it. Everyone should check out the rest of his work and get to know him a bit better.

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I am from Montclair, NJ, and I attend Bard College.