Since his sixth proper full-length Beach Music dropped in 2015, Alex G has risen from a promising Bandcamp prodigy to one of the foremost names in modern indie rock. Or at least that’s how the notoriously reclusive and cryptic 24-year-old feels on Rocket, an album ridden with anxieties about the astronomical pressure he perceives at this point in his career. Although feature stories in every major music publication, a cult fanbase and being backed by an indie powerhouse like Domino Records (Animal Collective, Arctic Monkeys) can only take a mumbly, introspective one-man-band so far in this age, all that buzz is clearly wearing on the Philly native who used to unannouncedly upload his bedroom-born records to Bandcamp, and who still refuses to use social media unless he absolutely must. However, the industry-ordered gap between Beach Music and Rocket (the longest of his career) and the corresponding self-induced pressure boiled over into the most diverse and experimental yet consistently great batch of tracks he’s ever released.
The record begins with the gorgeously cluttered “Poison Root,” featuring twisted, muttered vocals set over a swarm of fiddles, key strokes, acoustic guitar and banjo riffs. (The latter instrument is perhaps a callback to the folky banjo lick on the intro track of his 2010 debut Race, which was a sound he wore exceedingly well yet never fully returned to until now.) At its core, “Poison Root” is actually the most “O.G.” Alex G song on the album (simple, minor key acoustic guitar chords, restrained vocals, ominously vague lyrics), but all of the instruments loaded on top are emblematic of how far he’s come—his largest leap being collaboration with other artists, something he would’ve never allowed on previous projects but which gives songs like this such life.
Much of this liveliness takes the shape of country and folk tunes like the toe-tapping “Proud,” the crescendoing and vocally-centric “Powerful Man” and the spectacularly catchy lead single “Bobby,” which features stunning dual vocals between he and collaborator Emily Yacina that genuinely make this one of the best songs he’s ever written. However, although some outlets were dubbing Rocket Alex G’s country album during its initial announcement, and the pastoral cover art seemed to back that claim, the creepy, music boxy synths on “Witch” usher in an unexpected divergence from its rootsy first third and into a boldly experimental middle section.
The one-two of “Horse” into “Brick” is the most batshit insane passage of his entire discography. The former is an absolute cacophony of clapping percussion, dizzying pianos, random orchestral sounds, animalistic moaning and grand, organ-like keystrokes that provide a maniacal tone and some semblance of order within the near-incalculable pace of the track. By the time you think you’ve figured out the groove, it’s already slid seamlessly into “Brick,” a hellish banger that pulls from Death Grips and Show Me the Body, as G’s harsh yells are muffled by overloaded reverb that render him completely unrecognizable. He tauntingly sneers the line “I know that you’re lying” during the hook, which begs to be shouted back from a hype crowd and is astonishingly uncharacteristic of anything he’s ever put out.
The following song “Sportstar” is another electronic track that’s equally different for him, though a complete 180 from the nightmarish cuts before it. The vibey, chillwave beat, autotuned vocals and alt-R&B vocal patterns are definitely his most apparent ode to Frank Ocean (whom he had the honor of collaborating with on last year’s Blond(e) and Endless) and the track operates as a valuable palette cleanse and an important transition into the calming remainder of the album. The thumping rhythm of “Judge” recalls the standout Beach Music track “Kicker,” “Alina” is up there with “Sarah” for one of the prettiest he’s ever penned and the upbeat closer “Guilty” fully commits to the swing jazz that he’s tinkered with in the past, the crowd of voices caroling together in a sitcom finale-type manner. The sax solos, humming synths and pattering percussion outlast the singing and take the jam for a walk in the same fashion as Beach Music’s superb finale “Snot.”
However, as cheery as it is musically, the lyrics tongue-in-cheekily poke at the record’s main theme: guilt. Alex G is guilty about not being able to live up to others’ expectations (“Proud”), guilty of his own immaturity and perceived weaknesses (“Powerful Man”—during which he dreams of a promise land where he’s brave and bold and unafraid), guilty of how he’s acted in his relationship (“Bobby”) and in the song “Guilty” itself, he asks his audience if they’re burying the truth deep down, insinuating that he’s doing the same. Although the awkward placement and clunky structure of “County” make it the only weak track musically, its narrative of a prisoner whose quiet, unassuming cellmate ends up quite literally swallowing dark truths (heroin and a razor blade) is a particularly sinister hint that Alex G has some demons. Perhaps then the message of “Brick” is it takes one to know one; a liar, that is.
Although it was his most cohesive and fine-tuned release when it dropped, longtime fans were generally underwhelmed by the murky, lethargic texture of Beach Music and were hoping for something as jarring and assorted as his 2014 breakout DSU. In that regard, Rocket is most certainly a return to form. It truly does contain both his most accessible and inaccessible moments, and is also his best produced and most technically proficient. For a man who’s dropped seven albums before turning 25 (not counting his “unreleased” catalog, which is about as large as his Bandcamp discography) Rocket is a very logical next step. It presents a load of different directions he can take in the future and it proves he can also continue to pull off incredibly varied projects with ease.
Right now Alex G is soaring upward, but he’s wary of his altitude. Hopefully he has enough fuel in the tank to enter orbit.