Review Summary: A little more than a memory, sticks in my head
The early 2010s were a tumultuous time for music; the big torrent sites were still successfully scaring paranoid teens away from pirating (or at least me), and Spotify was a few years from changing the way the consumers thought about consuming music. There have always been one-off artists that have been able to gain large followings without record label backing; however, technological advances and their affordability, as well as the internet’s democratizing effects on distribution, have led to a small wave of artists who grew from releasing songs in their bedrooms into becoming household indie artists. Presently, artists that get big from bandcamp and organic social media growth can compete with the sons and daughters of industry and financial execs (and a few artists can kind of be both cough Clairo). Some of the first bandcamp artists that have gained a significant amount of attention in the 2010s appear to be cooling off. Frankie Cosmos hasn’t topped her work from her 2014-2016 era, and Car Seat Headrest, while still being a titan of indie music, hasn’t released anything noteworthy since Teens of Denial in 2016 (I’m not counting the re-release). With the dawn of the new decade, it seems like a natural time for the mid 2010 darlings to fade away while the next generation hyped indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers or Beach Bunny might take center stage.
Meanwhile, Alex G has been topping his game every few years. The House of Sugar singles were a culmination of everything that made Alex stand out amongst the bedroom indie crowd. On “Gretel,” the cheesy sounding synth lines that call back to DSU or RL Kelly Split as well as the processed, pitched-up vocals that have appeared many times in his discography are back. But Alex weaves them into an evolving, mature, tour de force single that feels fresh and like the fully mature version of his previous ideas. With a discography that ripens with age, the hype and influence that has been surrounding Alex G continues to intensify. Alex has found millions of new fans from viral TikTok sounds, showing that any obscure track from the early 2010s is only one popular e-boy shout-out away from being appreciated by a new generation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the songs that blew up (“Tree House”, “Advice”, “Sarah”) come from Trick and earlier. Alex’s earlier works have a certain aura to them that can’t be recaptured.
Getting into the album, the first thing that stands out is the cover. Ironically, Trick is one of Alex’s most sonically quintessential records, and yet the cover is easily the most experimental. Apart from Race, which is a low quality but candid shot that looks similar to thousands of self made bandcamp covers from the early ‘10s, every other cover is a painting from Alex’s sister, Rachel. This lends much of his discography a similar aesthetic, from which Trick stands apart. Trick’s cover occupies the uncanny valley, with a traditional looking church encompassing the cheesy, aqua-blue, word-art letters and the inconclusively photoshopped german shepherd. Looking at the cover, it feels as if the work is daring you to find meaning, but even upon closer inspection any concrete meaning remains elusive. It would feel at home on /r/surrealmemes or as a liminal space. Once “Memory” starts, the tone and atmosphere of the album are immediately set. Alex’s falsetto, sounding almost on the verge of caving in on itself, fades in as the drums and lead guitar fade out. The vibes are comforting, but not in the way the Weakerthans are. Not a warm sweater, but a rainy day in the twilight of your adolescence. Things might not be perfect but your whole life is ahead of you, everything is ok, and you know you’ll look back on these memories through the rose-gold tinted glasses of nostalgia.
The entire record doesn’t have any central narrative or theme, but it still feels interconnected throughout in a way that isn’t present on Alex G’s later, more experimental releases. The surreal feeling conveyed by the album cover and the cozy production of “Memory” never disappear, even as the album progresses. But Alex adds enough variety to keep listeners engaged. Early highlight “Forever,” with the arpeggiated acoustic guitar and palm muted electric lends the piece an almost banjo-like feel without ever feeling country, and the saxophone recalls something you’d hear on a cheesy smooth jazz recording. On “Advice,” the backing power chords and distorted lead are both extremely simple, but the production and vocals that are reaching the brink of fragility are taken up a notch. With the addition of Emily Yacina lending her unique vocal timbre to the harmony, “Advice” has enough class to stand up to any of the best indie slacker rock albums from the 90s (as a rule of thumb, any Alex G song with Emily Yacina is essential). “So,” one of the most underrated songs in Alex’s discography, can be thought of as the flip side of the same coin as “Advice.” Instead of a marching eighth note wall of sound and Yacina’s dreamy harmonies, there’s a more dynamic rhythm and a liberal use of guitar harmonics. “Mary” and “Sarah” are the two most popular songs from the album pre and post TikTok, and accordingly feel the most developed in structure, instrumentation, and melody. They would be the natural starting point for anybody looking to get into Trick or even Alex G as a whole.
A majority of Alex G’s lyrics can be sorted into two distinct groups. "Memory” falls into the category of ‘character sketches,’ akin to a large portion of alt-country lyrics, where some of the most revered bands are known for their succinct, poetic drawings of everyday life. These lyrics are focused on rural, salt of the earth people and their stories that are rarely represented in popular media, whereas Alex’s character driven lyrics are generally about misfit adolescents trying to find their place in the world. “Memory’s” lyrics are sparse, with each line barely eclipsing eight words and only twelve lines in the whole song. But Alex is able to create a setting and atmosphere and coax your imagination to fill in the gaps. “Memory” describes a self medicating narrator reminiscing about their old friend. A hazy present and a hazy past swirling together and with only a feeling left over.
“Whale,” “Kute,” and “Adam” fit into the other group of Alex G lyrics: absurdity. While there are goofy, eccentric lines sprinkled throughout his official discography, they’re not as blatant or as numerous as the lyrics on Trick. It is difficult to pull off lines such as: My favorite animal is the whale / I like his big fat tail / I like his big fat tail without being cringy and having the same energy as the *holds up spork* brand of random humor that was thankfully ridiculed to death in the ‘10s. There are a few reasons that Alex is able to make them work. “Whale” and “Adam” have incredibly childish and quirky lines, but a lot of other Alex G subject matter is also in the realm of invoking a childlike sense of wonder and feelings of adolescence. These songs fit in and push these themes to their limit. It also helps that Alex G doesn’t take himself too seriously; he never gives off the impression that he’s being ironic or concerned about evaluating himself in a self-referential way. While I have defined the two groups I see his lyrics fitting in, a number of songs can also fall in a combination of these. An atmosphere that implores nostalgia and feeling of a certain time and place flavored with some lines that are out of left field and give more color. “Animals,” as an example, seems innocuous enough on the surface, but there are a few lines that have sparked almost conspiratorial discussions online about a possible deeper meaning (exercise left to the reader).
It’s not an accident that the albums after Trick are where Alex started to add different tricks (no pun intended) and stylistic earworms to differentiate his later releases. Besides a few moments on Race (the circus type beat stuff on “Trash”, “Crab” and “Let it Go”), everything up to and including Trick doesn’t stray far from the fairly barebones, lo-fi indie sound. Alex entirely relies on the strength of the songs and since Trick executed his sound so perfectly, subsequent releases had to branch out into different territory to continue Alex G’s evolution. There's no fantastical stock garageband instrumentals or Death Grips inspired freakouts a few minutes removed from a country banger. None of these experiments feel tacky or desperate (which is easier said than done), but each album after Trick can be summed up in a few words like ‘the country one,’ or the ‘atmospheric bug voiced one,’ etc. The challenge of moving into new territory while still maintaining quality and authenticity is something that most great artists face. Knowing when it’s time to explore different directions can be obvious for some bands. Getting BNM or insane hype from the broader musical media, fans and sales, and festival circuits can be an easy signal that it’s time to move on. Tame Impala post Lonerism or Kendrick Lamar after GKMC stand out as obvious examples. But between Trick and DSU, Alex had to rely on his own instinct and honest self-appraisal of his abilities. With the hindsight of the last decade, it was the right move. Trick was the inflection point, a classic of the mid 2010s bandcamp sound whose legacy will only continue to grow.