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Sometimes it feels like you hear a Bright Eyes song with your whole body. From Conor Oberst’s early recordings in an Omaha basement in 1995 all the way up to 2020, Bright Eyes’ music tries to unravel the impossible tangles of dissent: personal and political, external and internal. It’s a study of the beauty in unsteadiness in all its forms – in a voice, beliefs, love, identity, and what fills up the spaces in-between. And in so many ways, it’s just about searching for a way through.
The year 2020 is full of significant anniversaries for Bright Eyes. Fevers and Mirrors was released 20 years ago this May, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning both turned 15 in January. The latter, a singer-songwriter tour-de-force released amidst the Bush presidency and Iraq war, wades through incisive anti-war rhetoric and micro, intimate calamities. On the title track and throughout the record, Oberst sings about body counts in the newspaper, televised wars, the bottomless pit of American greed, struggling to understand the world alongside one’s own turmoil. In its own way, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning carved out its place in the canon of great anti war albums by being both present and prophetic, its urgency enduring 15 years later.
In 2011 the release of The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ ninth and most recent album, ushered in an unofficial hiatus for the beloved project. In the time since, the work of the band’s core members – Oberst, multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, and multi instrumentalist Nathaniel Walcott – has remained omnipresent, through both the members’ original work and collaboration.
In recent years, Mogis produced records for beloved folk acts First Aid Kit and Joseph, among others, as well as mixed the fine-spun ennui of Phoebe Bridgers’ breakthrough 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. Mogis and bandmate Walcott also teamed up to write
the original scores for The Fault in Our Stars, Stuck in Love, and Lovely Still, and Walcott worked as a solo composer scoring number of independent feature-length films. Walcott spent extensive time on collaboration; in addition to his arrangement work for Mavis Staples, First Aid Kit, and M. Ward, he contributed studio work to artists ranging from U2 to jazz guitarist Jeff Parker, and also traveled the world as a touring member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Oberst, who’s nearly 30 years into a prolific musical career, spent the last decade in similarly productive fashion. Across three years he released a string of solo albums: Salutations (2017), Ruminations (2016), and Upside Down Mountain (2014), as well as guested on records by First Aid Kit, Phoebe Bridgers, and Alt-J. His punk band, Desaparecidos, emerged from a 13-year hiatus in 2015 with the thunderous sophomore LP, Payola, a white-knuckled disarray of hollered political fury. And at the top of 2019, Oberst and Bridgers debuted their new band, Better Oblivion Community Center, digitally dropping the critically-lauded eponymous debut LP alongside a surprise performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
The heart at Bright Eyes’ songwriting still looms culturally, in films and TV shows and through re-imaginings by other artists. Mac Miller covered both “Lua” and “First Day of My Life”; Lorde’s version of the penultimate The People’s Key track, the funereal-waltz “Ladder Song,” was a focal point of The Hunger Games’ soundtrack; The Killers covered “Four Winds” for their Spaceman EP; and Lil Peep’s “Worlds Away” samples “Something Vague” while Young Thug’s “Me Or Us” samples “First Day of My Life.”
Bright Eyes’ expansive catalog has traversed genre, sound, and countless players; unpolished demos or fuzzy folk, electrified rock or country twang. The sharp songwriting and musicianship is all anchored in Bright Eyes’ singular ability to flip deep intimacy into something universal. For so many, for so long, listening to Bright Eyes has been like hearing yourself in someone else’s song – a moment of understanding or illumination, knowing you’re on the same team looking for a way to move through of all this shit.
And while 2020 is a year of milestones for the band, it’s also the year Bright Eyes returns, newly signed to indie label Dead Oceans. Amidst the current overwhelming uncertainty and upheaval of global and personal worlds, Oberst, Mogis, and Walcott reunited under the moniker as both an escape from, and a confrontation of, trying times. Getting the band back together felt right, and necessary, and the friendship at the core of the band has been a longtime pillar of Bright Eyes’ output. For Bright Eyes, this long awaited re-emergence feels like coming home.
There’s hardly a second when Alex Giannascoli’s voice can’t be heard in “Walk Away,” the opener of hislatest album, House of Sugar. The distended, pitched-up wail that introduces the track gives way to cascading layers of his more familiar intonations. “Someday I’m gonna walk away from you,” he sings; “not today.” These are the song’s only words, repeated again and again for more than four minutes. In the repetition, emphasis shifts from “someday” to “not today” and back, leaving the listener in a space of uncertainty. It’s in this space that Giannascoli—the 26-year-old artist better known as Alex G—lingers throughout the album’s thirteen songs: between backwards and forwards, past and future, one voice and another. On House of Sugar, his third full-length for Domino and ninth overall, Alex inhabits a diverse range of musical and emotional points-of-view (often simultaneously), in turn illuminating the tension that hides in the shadow of desire.
Giannascoli began writing these songs in the fall of 2017, having just finished a tour for House of Sugar’s acclaimed predecessor, Rocket, and moved into a new apartment in Philadelphia. Whereas with earlier efforts, such as 2011’s self-released Winner or the landmark 2014 release DSU, he’d write numerous songs fairly quickly, with House of Sugar Giannascoli worked at a steadier pace, concentrating on fewer songs and laboring over each one more than before.
After building the tracks at home, recording most of the guitars, keyboards, and vocals himself, Giannascoli enlisted some recurring bandmates and collaborators to help realize further aspects of the album: Samuel Acchione’s wailing electric guitar on “Walk Away,” John Heywood’s bass underneath “Taking,” Tom Kelly’s drums giving “Hope” its bounce, Molly Germer underscoring “Southern Sky” on violin. Throughout the process Giannascoli worked closely with Jacob Portrait, who mixed both Rocket and its predecessor, 2015’s Beach Music, and here helped to balance each of House of Sugar’s dense, multi-faceted tracks. As the product of extended focus and planning, House of Sugar emerges as Giannascoli’s most meticulous, cohesive album yet: a statement of artistic purpose, showing off his ear for both persistent earworms and shifting textures.
Which is to say, “cohesive” doesn’t imply that House of Sugar dispenses with the out-there sonic adventurism that’s made previous Alex G records so singular. Giannascoli recorded with a clone of the Neumann U87 microphone, built by Tom Kelly—the first time he’d ever used a microphone other than the Samson Q1U USB mic that he got as a teenager. The new mic, coupled with an updated version of Garageband that came with a replacement laptop, provided Giannascoli a new toolkit for home-recording, prompting him to analyze the types of sounds he’d been making and that he wanted to make. In addition to bolstering the rich, polished mix of its rock-oriented songs, the new equipment allowed for a broad range of unique technical experiments that provide each track emotional and tonal complexity. This includes not only the otherworldly vocals that haunt songs such as “Walk Away,” “Taking,” and “Bad Man,” but also the more subtle hums and echoes that texture “Hope” and “Gretel,” and the distorted soundscapes into which listeners of “Sugar” and “Near” are immersed.
Throughout, the multiplicity of Giannascoli’s voice evokes the hybrid existence of a science-fiction creature, at once human and something else. Indeed, in many ways, hybridity defines House of Sugar. The lines between characters and narrators are perpetually blurry, allowing room for artist and listener alike to move through the songs, to access their shifting headspaces. On “Southern Sky”, we hear a voice other than Giannascoli’s own: frequent collaborator Emily Yacina, who sang on Rocket’s “Bobby,” among other Alex G songs. The pair’s voices intertwine as they follow the track’s meandering pathway. Its steady country-rock bounce belies the extent to which “Southern Sky” changes as it flows along—how it starts with a discordant piano run and ends with the lilting strum of a single acoustic guitar, a disturbed (and unintentional) echo of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” The distinction between beginning and end, at first concealed by a tight composition, is emblematic of the way House of Sugar works as a whole: throughout the album Giannascoli makes you think that something is one way before revealing, often almost imperceptibly—maybe not until it’s too late—that it’s probably another.
The stakes are often high in this regard. The dramatic action pose depicted on the album’s cover (as always, painted by Giannascoli’s sister, Rachel) points to the feelings of precarity evoked within. Just as the figure skater looks poised to either succeed or fall, House of Sugar’s characters are constantly teetering on the edge of extremes, approaching either bliss or violence—unless it’s both at the same time. They’re manipulated (“Gretel”) and manipulative (“Crime”); up in the sky (“Sugar”) and buried in the dirt (“Bad Man”). Caught in the ambiguous spaces of the songs, House of Sugar’s characters are disposed toward the bad—“Music makes me wanna do bad things,” sings Giannascoli on “In My Arms”—but seemingly reaching for the good. Or, are they? Could bad be good, sweet be sour? While each track hints at concrete situations derived from either Giannascoli’s life or a covert array of literary and filmic sources, none excludes a host of oppositional possibilities that listeners can generate and regenerate themselves.
The album’s final track, “SugarHouse,” opens with applause: it was recorded at a 2018 concert in St. Louis, with a saxophone overdubbed later, the first time Giannascoli has implemented a live recording on a studio album. (In 2018, though, he released a Live at Third Man Records LP.) A brooding, flowing anthem, “SugarHouse” shares its name with a casino not far from Giannascoli’s home in Philadelphia; as the song unfolds, the casino emerges as a suggestive site for the album as a whole. Its first verse echoes the various moments when a House of Sugar protagonist realizes that highs are always temporary, that what seems sweet often isn’t. “SugarHouse is calling my bluff,” Giannascoli sings. But, in the second verse, his character—unknown and broken—nevertheless professes faith in where he is and who he’s with. Nothing is definitive, but after thirteen songs of being split apart and spread around, through these relationships, in the House of Sugar, he might finally be “put together again.”