"Damned if we do, dumb if we don’t"
In the early years of the last decade, I saw Grandaddy as one of a trio of bands that opened the doors to a style of music I still occasionally refer to as ’Cosmic Americana’. The other two acts were Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips, both of which had enjoyed crossover hit albums that allowed them to achieve a heart-warming level of commercial success. Grandaddy, despite the brilliance of albums like The Sophtware Slump and Sunday, never really reached the level of success they deserved to, any critical success they achieved being overshadowed by that enjoyed by Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips, despite the fact that their quality control was starting to dip towards albums like The Secret Migration and At War With the Mystics. Then, just as they had started to record the material that would become 2006’s Just Like the Family Cat, Tim Dryden, Jim Fairchild, Kevin Garcia, Aaron Butch and Jason Lytle announced that their next album would be their last, leading to a collective sigh of disappointment by their fans, who upon hearing that final release reflected on the fact that, unlike their more celebrated peers, Grandaddy had never released a bad album. Last Place in sales. First place in the hearts of their fans.
Since the release of Just Like the Family Cat there have been albums from offshoot acts like Admiral Radley and All Smiles, as well as a couple of solo efforts by Jason Lytle, (the first of which, Yours Truly, The Commuter, is superb), and the odd reunion gig here and there, but there was always the feeling of unfinished business. Then, a short while ago, Jason Lyle let slip that he and his former bandmates were working on new material. Maybe, just maybe, it might be as good as what had gone before.
Always the most willing of the for-mentioned trio to embrace wobbly synthetic sounds, Grandaddy’s return album, Last Place, opens with a grin-inducing blend of off-kilter keyboards, indie guitar crunch and heart-swelling harmonies. “Way We Won’t” opens Last Place in a way that recalls “Now it’s On” kicking off Sumday, in that it’s a shot of life-affirming optimism in a world full of fear and doubt. While Grandaddy may have always been absolute masters of the hirsute downbeat, it’s a timely reminder that they were more than capable of cheerier sounding material too.
What is surprising that “Way We Won’t” is followed up by the similarly upbeat “Brush With the Wild”, and then “Evermore”. These three synthesiser driven numbers effectively blow away the cobwebs and banish any thought that Grandaddy’s comeback album would be a half-hearted release, indeed after three tracks, this is the sound of a band with a set of fully recharged creative batteries and actually feeling unexpectedly chipper. At least until you hit “Oh She Deleter :(“, where a few simple synthetic lines infuse a familiar melancholy into proceedings. From there “The Boat is in the Barn” manages the vintage Grandaddy manoeuvre of switching from a sweet, almost poppy opening verse, only for an emotive chorus to give the heartstrings a strong tug, and the whole thing becomes a whole lot more reflective.
A further twist is provided by “Chek Injun”, which sounds for all the world like a tune the band unwisely omitted from the opinion-splitting The Diary of Tod Zilla mini-album. Like wise, both “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” and “That’s What Uou Get for Getting Out of Bed” sounds like they would have happily sat on The Sophtware Slump or Sumday. At this point Last Place sounds very much like an album with the task of reassuring Grandaddy fans that they remain as great as they ever were. It’s a reminder of everything that they were great at during their initial run together, and confirms that they really deserved to have found a bigger audience before now. They even go so far as to revisit the ill-fated Jed character from The Sophtware Slump. If this was done by a lesser talented band this would be a cheap shot, however, for Grandaddy, it just works.
Something else that still works is Jason Lytle’s fine, emotionally wavering, voice. Lytle’s vocals have always been instantly identifiable, and remain so throughout Last Place. He’s on particularly fine form on “This Is the Part”, whereupon Grandaddy once again flirt with Electric Light Orchestra fandom, but still retain their own melancholic identity.
Okay, so now and again, you might wish that Grandaddy had perhaps dialled down the nostalgia and made a bit more of an effort to provide Last Place with it’s own unique identity by returning with a totally revised sound, but that’s selling this album desperately short. I still live in the hope that one day either Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips will recapture this type of form. Ultimately Last Place is a collection of great songs by Grandaddy, and really, that’s all you want from a Grandaddy album, and as the downbeat and pretty “Songbird Son” closes the album, you’re just glad they’re back with us.