Review Summary: Alex G, name change aside, finds himself with his most mature album to date.
There is a balancing act when it comes to what is known as ‘ambiguity’ in writing, one that has to do with the capacity for audience comprehension. If an artist paints only in broad strokes, so to speak, the message of the image can never be truly communicated beyond its physicality, but if one never allows for the abstraction to do the communicating, and instead fills in every image with fine detail, there is less room for the audience to find themselves amid the art, the writing. Alex Giannascoli's great strength is found in his inherent understanding of this equilibrium in his lyrical craft. Beneath the veneer of experimental indie-rock music belies fine crafted poetry that tugs at Americana, songwriting that approaches subjects of power, abuse, love-and-loss, repression, and manhood. Giannascoli, who has often interwoven experience and adolescence throughout his songs both lyrically and sonically, finds himself in a place of his most mature craft and song writing yet. Between allowing collaboration more readily than he ever has before and writing on subjects with a new found confidence not apparent in his earlier works, the now “Sandy” Alex G develops his Rocket as an album that embraces both the abstract and the tangible, the impression and the personal.
Songs like “Bobby" and “Sportstar” demonstrate the development of this aspect of Giannascoli’s craft most evidently, with implications and images being tied to stories that sound both personal and distant. “Bobby” reflects on a complicated menage a trois of some order, and it conjures up succinct and salient images like, “He wakes me when he goes to work/His hands are cold/His breath is smoke” while never revealing its hand, blurring its narrative first person through the duet between Giannascoli and contemporary Emily Yacina.
“Sportstar”, meanwhile, approaches some kind of interplay between violence and romance, but it is left unclear whether the narrator allows, forgives, or encourages abuse, and whether it is status or idolization that motivates them (the line "Let me wear your jersey/If you want to hurt me, hurt me" working as a an example of this song's content). The warbling vocals, swamped in auto-tune and surrounded by a strangely danceable syncopation considering the lyrical content, further blur the very existence of the narrator, obscuring gender and name. The composition of these songs do little to solidify any thorough understanding of the album, and that represents the album at its best. Alex G seems unable to latch himself to a concept for too long, and that is ultimately a boon to the album, as he finds himself imitating the voices of youth, of men, of women, all without ever being anything other than Alex Giannascoli himself.
Instrumentally, Rocket is ambitious, with forays into back-porch Americana, abrasive and relentless noise-rock, bright folk, dark alternative, and cerebral and somber electronica. The album begins and ends at its most contemporarily recognizable, recalling previous works like Trick and DSU, albeit with richer orchestration and broader palate, a little more Woody Guthrie than he has allowed himself to be in the past. What essentially works as the album’s middle act, however, is much more overtly experimental, owing more to Beach Music than any of his other albums. The striking “Witch” presents his voice more dynamically than many other tracks on the album, invoking Miller’s “The Crucible” more than anything. “Brick”, meanwhile, finds itself with the honor of being the most overtly aggressive song on the album, embracing noise in a way Giannascoli has only flirted with in the past. This is his best album by a mile by way of mastering and development of sound, but some may ultimately find the mixed influences and genres to ultimately detract from the greater overall aesthetic embraces of Rocket.
In an interview with Stereogum after the album’s release, Alex Giannascoli confessed his own apprehension with applying meaning to his, or anyone’s, work, saying, “It’s this personal magic, and nobody realizes the reality of a song’s meaning or whatever is not gonna compare with that untouched story in your head. The reason you enjoy [music] is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it.” More than any of the meaningless ‘influences’ many reviews have recalled in reference to the album, this quote speaks true to Giannascoli’s intent and approach to composing and writing Rocket. This is music that does not offer resolution, or solace, only impressions and feelings, and the intention isn’t to answer but to ask, to open itself to its listeners. In this, the album is sterling. The sonic departure into experimental rock bookended by Americana may off-put some earlier fans, and the album’s inherently opaque approach to songwriting may have its detractors, but make no mistake - from idea to execution, Rocket succeeds, and succeeds hard.