Philadelphia’s (Sandy) Alex G, (formerly just known as Alex G) is a twenty-four year-old prolific bedroom recorder/producer whose plethora Bandcamp releases got him a deal with Domino. Rocket is his second album for the label, following 2015’s Beach Music. I’ve been following Alex since his 2014 release, DSU, which was affecting and emotional despite (or because of) its lo-fi production aesthetic. Alex last popped up on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of all places (he played guitar on “Self-Control”), and on Rocket, he shows that the two enigmatic musicians have more in common than one might think – they’re both in the business of completely throwing the idea of genre or traditional song or album structures out the window.
Rocket starts with one of my favorite songs of the year thus far, the droning, banjo picking, other-world folk of “Poison Root”, on which Alex, singing as though he’s drowning in a puddle of mud, describes taking psychedelic plants before repeating “Now I know everything,” a lyric that I’ve come back to again and again for its endless interpretations as the introduction to an album about learning how to be an adult. The song rockets immediately into “Proud”, an upbeat, jaunty, head bobbing piano and acoustic number that, even at 4:57, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Alex sings of his insecurities as a young adult – “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink”. “Country” is a slinking, jazzy extended electric guitar solo over which Alex, in innumerable overdubbed falsettos, sings the harrowing tale of being in jail with a kid who had “a few bags of heroin deep in his stomach / He swallowed a razor / See I got some stories” before the fourth-wall breaking “Hey why don’t you write that into a song / Maybe your fans with dig that”. And, naturally, the album courses directly into the melancholy fiddle and banjo duet “Bobby”.
By this point in the record, it’s apparent that Alex is plays by no rule book, linking his songs together only with his ever present easy acoustic strumming and unique but personal songwriting topics. Then we hit “Horse”, which sounds like a bunch of cheap Logic bell loops all played a half step out of time with each other around an ominous synth bass, bringing us to the album’s centerpiece, “Brick”. This experimental, raging, loud, distorted piece of raw, unadulterated free form experimentation sounds like Death Grips meets Mellow Gold -era Beck. “Proud” might make its way onto the curated eight-hour Yankee Candle store corporate playlist. “Brick” might make people on bad acid trips kill themselves. Personally, I think the track is genius and perfectly sequenced right at the record’s half way point, as if Alex was concerned that the listener was growing too comfortable.
I think the record’s back half, however, features Rocket‘s weakest songs, not because they are too inaccessible or self-indulgent, but because the aesthetic concept they shoot for just isn’t that compelling. The immediate follow-up to “Brick” is “Sportstar”, a piano loop track on which Alex utilizes unflattering chipmunk auto-tune and sings “Sport star / Let me wear your jersey / If you want to hurt me”. The song appears to be about violence and masochism, but I don’t understand the auto-tune choice and I feel like the song lacks the emotional punch a more raw, stripped back version could have delivered. The grungy “Judge” is classic Alex G but not particularly memorable, as is the careful, downcast “Big Fish”. But I do like the unsettling, shifty looping, banjo, fiddle and sound-effect percussion of the instrumental title track.
“Powerful Man” is one of the record’s many ‘WTF’ moments- if I get what he’s going for, Alex is purposefully utilizing a simplistic lyrical style to tell a story that demonstrates a young male’s immaturity and sows the seeds for a violent future as a parent: “Mom’s in a mood this week/ Cause she thinks her family’s going crazy / Guess it started with the baby / She went for a hug but it bit her on the cheek / That was pretty funny to me / Guess I should have more sympathy / I ain’t never raised no kids / But I bet I’d do a good job if I did”. The title may also be a reference to fellow Philadelphia artist’s song of the same name about domestic violence. Either way, the song is catchy and the fiddle work is sublime. The album ends with “Guilty”, another upbeat, jazzy track featuring electric guitar, drums and a saxophone solo.
Rocket is a wholly unique album, and although a couple of these tracks miss the high water mark set by the standouts, the record’s many twists and turns, lyrical, instrumental and production detours and cohesion through raw, intimate recording make it a success. Not all the tracks are catchy or easy to sing along with, and at times its hard to see where Alex is going lyrically, but I’m willing to bet there are far more nuances and subtleties than I’ve been able to detect, resulting in an album that rewards listeners for closer, careful inspection and reinterpretation.
Score: 10 / 13