On God Save the Animals, Alex G Finds Meaning in the Mainstream

Few musicians inspire more questions than Alex G. From his open-ended songwriting to his reclusive public persona, the inscrutable indie rocker remains a point of fascination within the broader indie landscape. The Philadelphia fixture, whose full name is Alex Giannascoli, first came to prominence in 2014 when his album DSU unexpectedly garnered critical praise. Though he’d been releasing music quietly on Bandcamp for years, the sudden embrace of DSU’s icy slowcore lead to his eventual signing to Domino. With each subsequent record, including 2017’s Rocket and 2019’s House of Sugar, the surrounding myth has only grown, his fanbase now resembling a cult following. And yet he feels ubiquitous. His name is immediately used as a point of comparison for any slightly “weird” rock act. He’s worked with the likes of Japanese Breakfast and Frank Ocean. He is, in every sense, hard to pin down. His music feels ultimately like a simultaneous embrace and rejection of genre.

That contradiction gets at why his work can feel impossible to categorize. When we try to put a label on what he’s doing, those labels feel insufficient. Sure, Rocket is the “folk” record, and House of Sugar is “electronic”—neither tag is inaccurate, but they each come with an asterisk. In truth, Alex G’s brand of indie rock is a mix of several facets that he contorts on a whim. Sometimes he may put a heavier focus on twangy guitars and string arrangements, other times doubling down on his drum machines and vocal manipulation. The result is always different, but the method remains mostly the same. His latest record, God Save the Animals, falls somewhere in between the sonic palettes of its two predecessors, most reminiscent of 2015’s steady-handed Beach Music. While moments on Animals nod at Elliott Smith’s yearning indie rock and others bring to mind Aphex Twin’s uncomfortable, twisted soundscapes, it never skews too far in any one direction.

What is new this time around is an explicit appreciation for the substance of, and creative process behind, pop music. Despite its creator’s years spent making music decidedly left-of-center, God Save the Animals often appears crafted in the image of mainstream radio rock. When discussing the writing of the lead single, the discordant “Blessing,” with The New York Times, Giannascoli described hearing Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” and taking inspiration from it. The album’s freewheeling highlight “Runner” sounds like a direct descendant of Soul Asylum’s 2000 hit “Runaway Train.” Even when Giannascoli is obscuring his songs with aberrant synths and pitched vocals, there’s a clear uptick in the recording quality this time around. This shift toward higher fidelity recording and intentional melody runs through each of Animals’ 13 tracks. It’s a testament to the singular artistry Alex G possesses that none of his sharp edges get buffed away, as is so often the case with this kind of sonic level-up.

Alex G is known for the frequent manipulation of his own voice. Through vocal effects and modulation, he’s able to create distance from his subjects, giving them a voice all their own, and adding unsettling texture to otherwise copacetic soundscapes. This can sometimes obscure the music’s emotional heft. Animals’ opening track, “After All” is a prime example. It’s difficult to discern the words at the center of its surreal vocals. It seems at first that the human voice is only there to be the canvas for his studio tricks. A glance at the lyrics, though, depicts something much heavier. At the core of this disquieting harmony are lines like, “There are rooms where I can’t hang my head / There are tears that I can’t cry / In the years you feel most alone / You will build the walls I climb,” and, “After all / People come and people go away / Yeah but God with me he stayed.” Devastating meditations on isolation are there to move you, should you give them the attention. Pitch-shifted vocals also appear on one of God Save the Animals’ most emotionally stirring moments on “Cross The Sea.” With his vocals pitched down low and raspy, he makes a plea of undying devotion; “I’d cross the sea for my baby / You can believe in me.” As a mix of live and mechanized drums skitter along the bottom of the track, jagged synths push against a labored, breathless delivery, making the titular sea travel into a veritable odyssey.

The devotion found in “Cross The Sea” is as close to a central theme as Animals has. It might be easy to assume from the many direct references to God that the album results from Giannascoli embracing religion, though he insists the connection isn’t there. Within many of these new songs, though, is a tangible sense of reverence. From the narrator of “No Bitterness” saying with an audible smile that he takes inspiration from a child’s sense of wonder, to the faithful operator in “Mission,” these stories explore our loyalty to ourselves, to the forces in our lives, and to each other. That last one is the heart and soul of “Miracles,” the record’s most impressive offering, and one of the strongest to date for Alex G. We see a couple looking back at their past together and facing the unknown challenges the future may bring, but doubling down on their faith in each other, a dynamic beautifully described in one verse; “You say one day / that we should have a baby / Well, right now baby / I’m struggling, we’ll see,” followed by another, a quick changing of the mind; “You say one day / we should have a baby / Well, god help me / I love you, I agree.”

“Miracles” and “Runner” stick out on the tracklist as obvious highlights, but they’re also sonic outliers. On a record that incorporates aspects of slowcore, drum & bass, and nu metal, these clear-eyed, sobering tracks feel unencumbered by the darkness sitting below most Alex G songs—they’re lifted instead by hope. The straightforward instrumentation and lack of theatrics found in “Runner” underscore its plain-spoken emotional vulnerability. Though it reads on the surface as the most unadorned rocker he’s written, there is still the jarring scream in the song’s bridge. For anyone else, that moment would stay with you, coloring your perception, but for Alex G, it barely registers as left-field.
It is difficult to incorporate such a wide range of influences into one’s music and still have a distinct sound. Alex G’s ability to widen the aperture of his work with each album, and not alienate his audience, speaks to just how much he’s able to pinpoint and define what stands out within his work. God Save the Animals is just the latest reminder that, as his tastes expand, so too does his sonic palate. There’s a point in “Miracles” where Giannascoli sings, “How many more songs am I supposed to write / Before I turn it off and say goodnight?” We as listeners can only hope this question is rhetorical.

Eric Bennett is a music critic with bylines at Post-Trash, The Grey Estates and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.

Listen to Alex G’s 2014 Daytrotter session below.