Alex Giannascoli is nothing if not cryptic. Known professionally as Alex G, the Philadelphia singer/songwriter spent his career building an eldritch universe of flawed protagonists, warped vocals, and hauntingly gorgeous melodies—a body of work both adored and painstakingly analyzed by his fans. Theories abound as to the true meaning of his music—are his songs about family members, romantic partners, or even beloved dogs? No matter who asks, Giannascoli’s not telling. In a recent profile by the New York Times, he sidestepped questions about the autobiographical nature of his work, emphasizing instead his reliance on a gut-level sense of what sounds good. To him, making music is “like catching a ball… I just don’t allow myself to think, ‘Should I put my hand here or here?’”
His latest album, God Save The Animals, benefits enormously from this instinctive approach. As always, he eschews the narrowness of confessional songwriting, inhabiting a vast range of styles and personae. However, Giannascoli’s chorus of disembodied voices seems newly preoccupied with questions of commitment and faith, audibly softened by a kind of redemptive presence—which might be God, forgiveness or enduring love, depending on the track. Forgoing a distinct individual perspective allows for a more capacious, thorough exploration of these complex themes, making equal space for pain and comfort, rapture and doubt. Enhanced by outstanding production value, God Save The Animals is mature and moving, some of Alex G’s finest work to date.
From the opening notes of “After All,” the album’s eerily stunning first track, it’s clear that Giannascoli has upped his game. Known for recording much of his music at home, he has recently ventured into a more formalized studio environment, a choice with audible benefits. Even the distorted, high-pitched voices on “After All” have an incredibly lucid quality, sounding nearly like a live children’s choir. His unfiltered singing sounds better than ever—the standout single “Runner” features one of the strongest vocal performances of his career. But it wouldn’t be an Alex G song if he didn’t subvert predictable, polished alt-rock, which he reliably does, interrupting the rhythm with a ragged shriek: “I have done a couple bad things!” This visceral disclosure, gone as suddenly as it appears, highlights one of the album’s recurrent themes: loss of innocence, and the thirst for redemption that comes with it.
“Mission,” another excellent track, engages with similar questions, exploring the frustration of a character who’s hewed close to a strict code of conduct, but still wrestles with nebulous regret. It’s followed by “S.D.O.S.,” a dark, piano-driven dirge with garbled, pitched-down vocals. At one point, a reedy, metallic voice emerges from the murk, announcing: “God is my designer/Jesus is my lawyer.” The effect is initially ridiculous, but there’s a magnetism to it – a kind of bizarre resonance that Giannascoli often attains through experimental production choices. A similarly strange beauty pervades “Cross the Sea,” a vow of devotion delivered in low auto-tune. Softer and less clouded with remorse than much of the album, it’s highlighted by soaring harmonies and thunderous, metallic flashes of percussion. These touches make it some of most thoughtfully arranged, texturally rich music he’s released since “Gretel,” from 2019’s House of Sugar.
The album’s magic is just as palpable in its more straightforward stretches. In fact, some of its most affecting moments occur within markedly approachable songs—like “Runner” and “Miracles,” an expertly finger-picked weeper that appears to borrow snatches of melody from Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” In stark contrast with tortured tracks like “S.D.O.S.” and “Blessing,” it’s a bare disavowal of apathy and hardness, an earnest effort to release fear, trauma, and guilt. The chorus isn’t entirely convincing; its assertion that “miracles and crosses” are “better pills than ecstasy” could have been lifted from a youth pastor’s homily. However, the speaker’s impulse to put faith in something besides the self—to bet, against all odds, on love and wonder—is undeniably moving, due in large part to its plainness and fragility. It will touch anyone deciding whether to bring a child, or any kind of difficult dream, into an increasingly hostile, unlivable world.
All this being said, God Save The Animals has its awkward patches. “Early Morning Waiting” features some nice guitar flourishes and turns of phrase, but otherwise feels aimless and plodding. “Immunity” begins with some exciting vocal manipulation à la Charli XCX, but it ultimately sounds unfinished—it could easily be mistaken for a demo from A.G. Cook’s sprawling 7G. Nonetheless, songs like these feel necessary to the album’s depth. It’s easy to get the sense that Giannascoli might not have arrived at the genius of “Cross the Sea” without first working through the strangeness of “Immunity.” As an artist whose primary tools are instinct and experimentation, he generates resonance by allowing listeners into his process, exposing a sometimes-discordant range of techniques, perspectives, and emotions. Giannascoli himself remains inscrutable, as do the mysteries of faith. But God Save The Animals offers a breathtaking, inventive chorale of responses to some of life’s most difficult questions—one made richer and truer by its dissonance.
Clare Flanagan is a San Francisco-based writer specializing in music criticism and poetry. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, running, and listening to music of all genres at an unwise volume.