It’s often regarded as damning criticism to refer to an artist and their work as ‘indulgent’. Yet when the artist is Alex G, and when the only thing that’s being indulged by his debut album for Domino is a fertile pop sensibility, it becomes apparent that ‘indulgent’ is really just a placeholder for a more specific failing the critic can’t quite identify, and that by itself it can’t possibly stand as a denunciation. It’s apparent because Beach Music is one of the most indulgent records you’re likely to hear all year, but since it indulges only the Philadelphian’s love for well-crafted pop songs and quirky indie, it’s nothing but an endearing delight. Hence, its lo-fi charms and sugared melancholia demonstrate that when they know what they’re doing, the best artists are not those who are the least self-indulgent, but rather those who are the most.
That the 22-year-old Giannascoli is a model of self-absorption and egocentricity (of the best possible kind) was indicated by a Fader interview from last year, in which it’s implied he renounced the likes of his old high-school band because “he works best alone” (“With another person [the song-writing process] takes f***ing forever”). However, his zealous attachment to solitary work pans out for the best on Beach Music, as is quickly revealed by lead single “Bug.” With this plaintive opener, warm acoustic guitars and chiming arpeggios create an inviting aureole around his tale of life in the music business. He wistfully sings of himself as a “Bug in the crosshair” of various records execs, at which point a crooked stab of electric guitar and a breezily insecure melody underline his reservations about signing a record deal after having spent the past few years making records out of his bedroom.
Such misgivings form a recurring subtext of Beach Music, and they fit with Alex G’s standing as an individualistic auteur who’s piously faithful to his own muse. In another interview from last year, he voiced his unease when it came to picturing himself recording an album in a fully-furnished studio (“I don’t want anyone else to have control. I just want to follow my own ideas”), and even though his seventh album was only mixed in a studio, several of its songs can be read off as hints to the doubts he harbors concerning his future as a jobbing musician. In the benign staccato-strumming of “Kicker” he ponders, “Maybe we should turn this boat around,” while during the solemn reverie of “Thorns” he reacts to the song’s spectral organs by asking himself, “Why would I like this thing?/ It haunts me like a shadow/ Never lets me go”.
Of course, as uncertain as he may be with regards to how world tours and record labels might affect the artistic freedom he’d carved out for himself in his South Philadelphia townhouse, his ascent from bedroom-cum-bandcamp amateur to contracted professional has emboldened him to write some of his strongest and most diverse material yet. For example, “Brite Boy” features a spacious and tender-eyed bridge that perfectly captures the yearning of separation, while “In Love” is a late-night lounge number whose languid pianos and sleepy trumpet compel Giannascoli to reconsider a relationship with the question, “Is it living a lie?/ Certain I’m sitting in love?” Both of these pieces touch on universal and immediately accessible themes of interpersonal entanglements, yet it’s the clarity and character of their songwriting — of their elemental choruses and tunes — that conveys the greatest emotional weight, and which ensures that the ironic payoff of Alex G’s introversion and withdrawal is the ability to relate to a greater number of people through his music.
This is perhaps Beach Music’s greatest trick: that much of it — from its idyllic title to its placeless mixture of genres — is escapism stemming from Giannascoli’s “not being able to deal with the way reality is,” but at the same time its 13 tracks are instantly familiar and approachable to everyone outside of the private little world he inhabits. On the one hand, this is simply because the desire to leave the 21st-Century rat race behind for idealism and imagination is becoming increasingly common to nearly all of us. On the other, it’s because Mr G is adept at tying his eccentric flourishes and weird peculiarities to the most solid and satisfying of lo-fi indie. For the woozy “Look Out,” potentially disorienting keys that ebb and waver are rendered quasi-timeless by the absorbing chord progression they trace, a progression that’s as penetratingly melodic as it’s abstractly psychedelic. Similarly, the stoic “Ready” houses moments of kitsch falsetto and cartoonish synth that only serve to imbue its buoyant pluckings and story of romantic anticipation with more personality, authenticity and credibility. In its final verse, Giannascoli reveals the irresolution affecting his love and professional lives when he sings, “You can stay or maybe you’ll leave,” encapsulating how, for all his attempts to preserve himself within an inviolable bubble, his world is as indeterminate and unpredictable as anyone else’s.
Yet even though it’s this doubt, irresolution and ambivalence that prevails as the overarching theme of Beach Music, the following line declares, “Doesn’t make a difference to me.” As trite as this lyric is as a comeback, it furnishes considerable insight into Alex G’s seemingly happy-go-lucky mindset and the relaxed allure that has already earned him so many fans beyond his native Pennsylvania. Even if his ‘debut’ as a paid-up member of the indie elite registers the possibility that he’s having second thoughts about this very same membership, and even if he’s not as fortunate in love as he is in music, it’s a safe bet that such a mindset will enable him to take any detours the future throws up in his stride. If worst comes to worst, he’ll continue indulging his passion for some of the most immediate and personable indie pop/rock released in years, and for this self-indulgence at least, we can continue to be thankful.
[This is an earlier version of a review that was published by PopMatters: http://www.popmatters.com/review/alex-g-beach-music/]