by Jack Washburn ’16
When you have a bizarre, anxiety-ridden dream, there’s always the impulse to share it with someone you’re close to, hoping that reliving the surreal experience will help to elucidate its relevance to your life. After all, this anxiety is arising from somewhere; if we can just articulate it with some degree of efficacy, then perhaps we’ll reach a greater understanding of its source.
Inevitably, these explanations of experiences with an already tenuous grasp on our consciousness always come out wrong. We have to stop and start repeatedly, we can arrive at the general feeling of the dream somewhat, but specifics inherently remain a bit fuzzy, and we might find ourselves adding fabricated plot elements to make the stories seem more interesting and linear, oftentimes without even realizing we’re doing so. And then we don’t know where we’ve ended up, feeling disappointed, as though we’ve wasted our listener’s time.
In all of this, the meaning – if there ever was one – is lost; in a matter of hours following waking up, the events dissipate and only the dreamlike sense of melancholy remains.
Over the course of his first official release, DSU, Alex G’s lyrics read like isolated excerpts from the middle of one of these explanations – dream-like and often confounding, but with an ostensible source within the curious mind of this one supremely talented 21-year-old Temple University student. He’s communicating an ambiguous feeling to begin with, but even then we only get part of the story. And yet, these brief snippets effectively hint at a darker and more fully realized under-current; it’s music that leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination in a way that still manages to be extremely satisfying.
We know Alex is trying to express something perhaps hopelessly opaque, and yet his attempts to do so over the course of the half-hour running time leave us perpetually engaged rather than alienated.
Still, despite all of this abstraction, there are lyrical threads and motifs throughout the album – death, maturity, mental illness, mutual dependence, illicit transactions, mysteriously repeated phrases like “black hair” and “tripper” – but, rather than giving each song a distinct focus, these themes are spread out from song to song so as to formulate a more cohesive album-length statement about how we communicate with one another (or, perhaps, fail to).
Musically, DSU runs the stylistic gamut, encapsulating most of the styles Alex has tried on for size over his short (but alarmingly productive) career. It’s not so much of a departure from Alex’s previous work as it is a refinement of what has been proven to work thus far. “Icehead” employs his trademark pitch-shifted vocals and “Axesteel” puts his recognizable feedback-streaked guitar lines to excellent use. Other songs are more accessible for those reluctant to embrace Alex’s “weirder” tendencies: “Harvey,” “Boy,” and the epic “Hollow” show Alex flexing his pop muscle without sacrificing any of his unique, sleazy brand of charm, hinting at potential mainstream acceptance, should he choose to embrace that route. The cheesy funk of “Promise” might initially come across as a stylistic outlier (and, indeed, it is the album’s only dramatic left turn), but Alex’s artistic voice is so strong and his compositional style so distinct that the song integrates seamlessly alongside the rest; the second Alex’s unmistakable falsetto enters the picture, all of the seemingly disparate elements fall into place with remarkable subtly. And whereas some artists employ shorter interludes as a quick fix to make their album’s scope seem larger without considering how they specifically enhance it, here tracks like “Tripper” and the hair-raising “Skipper” serve a purpose, offering a brief respite and filling out the album beautifully.
With “Boy,” the album closes on a note that nicely ties together DSU’s lyrical and musical threads into one of Alex’s most accessible and coherent tracks. It also one of the only tracks in which Alex employs the use of his more grounded lower register, imbuing the song with an air of lucidity that makes it such a superb closing track – as if Alex has finally awoken from his dream and is frankly addressing the listener. The key lyric here is Alex’s “baby’s” response to his story of seeing two dogs on the street: “I think you’re funny, you saw what you wanted to see.” It’s the kind of lyric that – in one jarring instant – delicately unravels Alex’s enigmatic persona, in effect illuminating the entirety of his vast and frequently self-referential discography. To me, “Boy” is about the inherent fear of being unable to communicate effectively – a particularly relevant topic considering Alex’s loyal following is growing by the second. If he tells the listener what he really sees through his distorted perspective, he runs the risk of his audience not taking him seriously. “I don’t want people to mix up absurdity with humor,” Alex told Patrick McDermott in a recent FADER profile. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted as joking, cause the songs are really serious to me.” So what Alex’s “baby” tells him essentially exposes his deepest insecurity – that his admittedly bizarre perspective will be interpreted as humorous and self-willed. Alex is only lyrically direct in his music when he’s explaining why he feels such a need to be lyrically indirect.
Because the album is produced and recorded entirely by Alex himself, with only Warren Hildebrand from Foxes in Fiction stepping in to master, critics have made much of Alex’s deceptively simple set up. He uses only one tiny microphone and sticks primarily to a traditional set up of guitar, drums, bass, and his distinctive shaky falsetto. Because Alex is a self-proclaimed perfectionist working on his own, however, these immaculately constructed songs are assembled in such a manner that they never really come across as all that simple. The guitars and vocals are so heavily layered that knowing Alex assembled these songs entirely on his own seems astounding, and yet the mix remains crisp, never becoming muddled – a testament to Alex’s recording and compositional prowess.
Coverage of Alex to date has been quick to note the forebears of his unique sound; in particular, names like Built to Spill, Elliott Smith, and the Microphones have been thrown around relentlessly. I understand that these are easy reference points for one hoping to introduce Alex to a new audience, but it is continually baffling to me that people seem to fairly unanimously agree with these comparisons; for my money, Alex is the rare artist who truly sounds like he developed his sound in a vacuum – a product of a lot of time presumably spent alone. Appropriately, Alex tends to shrug off these comparisons to 90’s indie rock hallmarks in interviews, claiming it’s not the type of music he’s naturally drawn to. If anything, Alex seems to draw influence primarily from his circle of like-minded musicians over at Orchid Tapes, such as Mathew Cothran and his Coma Cinema and Elvis Depressedly projects, but even that comparison feels a bit forced.
Alex’s lyrical style and bizarre production choices are all his own; listening to each idiosyncratic little instrumental flourish and off-key harmony, you’re left wondering what compelled him to place “that”right “there,” but ultimately impressed he knew to do so. The alignment of Alex G with these aforementioned artists positions him as something of a 90’s throwback, but in truth his music comes across as far more contemporary – futuristic, even – than that designation implies.
Having said all of this, DSU is also an album you can put on and enjoy passively, should you choose to do so. Indeed, it’s a pretty sounding record, impeccably paced and quietly exciting. That is reason enough to pick up this [free] album. However, should you choose to dig deeper, there’s a lot to explore within Alex’s subtly twisted universe. Just take a look at that cover (by Alex’s sister, no less) – the bright colors, the chaotic jubilation of the crowd, the confident stride of the heroic central figure. It’s a triumphant, appealing image, exaggerated to the point that it appears tinted by a sort of dream state.
A closer look reveals two demonic eyes peering out from under the helmet and a shadow that is proportionally much larger than the figure itself. There’s something sinister lurking beneath the surface here, something nightmarish and potentially catastrophic, but Alex G has the gumption to give us only the tip of the iceberg.
This album is available for free download HERE