At the end of “Poison Root,” the opening track on Alex Giannascoli’s new album, Rocket, the 23-year-old artist repeats the phrase “Now, I know everything” again and again, his voice seething over a clatter of banjo, violin, and acoustic guitar sounds. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact tone: does he really think he knows everything? Or are these incantations a form of self-assurance, covering up insecurity? The tension between ambition and self-doubt in this closing refrain is typical of Rocket’s fourteen tracks. Over musical backdrops that effortlessly jump from sound collage to country pop to dreamy folk music, the cast of characters that Alex G inhabits have fun, fall in love, develop obsessions, get into trouble, and burn out. Rocket illustrates a cohesive vision of contemporary experience that’s dark and foreboding, perhaps especially because of how familiar, or to use Alex’s word, “unassuming,” the settings are.
With a goat-adorned cover painted by Alex’s sister, Rachel, Rocket is the Philadelphia-based artist’s eighth full-length release—an assured statement that follows a slate of humble masterpieces, many of them self-recorded and self-released, stretching from 2010’s RACE to his 2015 Domino debut, Beach Music. Rocket’s sessions began shortly after Beach Music’s ended, with Alex tracking songs at home, by himself and with friends, in the gaps between a hectic 2015 and 2016 touring schedule. Both albums were mixed by Jacob Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bass Drum of Death), who lent them a fine-tuning that retains the homespun personality of earlier efforts.
Amid the process, in the fall of 2016, Alex made headlines for reasons outside his own releases. He had caught the attention of Frank Ocean, who asked him to play guitar on his two 2016 albums, Endless and Blonde. More than any stylistic cues, what Alex took from the experience was a newfound confidence in collaboration. “I always have a hard time letting people play on my stuff,” he says, “but I saw how comfortable [Ocean] was using other people’s playing.” Alex’s previous albums are largely solo affairs, but Rocket wears this collaborative spirit proudly. Touring band members Samuel Acchione and John Heywood contribute guitar and bass, both soloing on “County”; Samuel’s brother Colin plays bass on two songs as well. Emily Yacina, a more frequent collaborator, sings on “Bobby” and “Alina,” and Molly Germer shows up throughout the album on violin and vocals. Germer’s violin was a game-changer, as the instrument “added a texture that I can’t get on my own,” Alex notes.