"For areas where trees are fake, And dogs are dead with broken hearts, Collapsing by the coffee carts."
A few days ago, a section of social media broke. There was no huge public outcry, and certainly, the vast percentage of users barely noticed and those that did notice, simply didn’t care. For those of us among that smaller percentage, it was important. It was big. Jason Lytle mentioned he was working on a new Grandaddy album. For Grandaddy’s fans, this was huge, and seemingly everyone in their modest fanbase simultaneously flipped their collective lid.
Quite why Grandaddy would inspire such devotion among their fans is something not easy to explain. They were five guys from Modesto, California with a generous beard quota long before facial hair became the fashion statement it is today, playing guitar and synthesiser heavy indie rock that connected on an emotional level that many aspire to, but very few achieve. Of their four studio albums (they would release another four self-released albums), each has its devotees, but many will point to their sophomore effort, The Sophtware Slump, as their most enduring album. Released in May 2000, in a post-OK Computer musical landscape, while The Sophtware Slump only managed to make a modest sales impact, those that did appreciate it embraced it and have never let it go.
With its themes of isolation and despair brought on by humankind’s increasing reliance on technology as we marched unrelentingly into the new millennium, The Sophtware Slump struck exactly the right note at the right time and it’s just a shame that so few people heard it, as for those of us who did hear it at the time, that note still resonates today.
While most bands would opt to sequence their album so it closes with an epic, The Sophtware Slump turns that logic on its head by opening with the glorious near nine minute “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”, a gorgeous song which unerringly sets the tone for the rest of the album. Throughout the song Lytle by sounds a combination of resigned, cautiously optimistic and emotionally sand-blasted. If you were new to the music of Grandaddy it was a hell of an introduction, and for those that were already on board, it was a devastatingly effective way to consolidate what had gone before and remind the listener of exactly why they were a truly special band.
A measure of how special Grandaddy were, is the fact that “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” doesn’t overshadow the rest of the album. It is followed by “Hewlett’s Daughter” a refreshingly simple blast of indie rock, which gives drummer Aaron Burtch a bit of limelight, as his drumming throughout the song is one of the great hooks in the album. The unexpectedly great thing about the song is, it doesn’t even begin to try to compete with its epic predecessor, it just goes and does its own thing and does what it does better than anything else which tries to do what it does does.
Elsewhere on the album, there are moments of indie-pop brilliance in “The Crystal Lake”, the short sharp blast of “Chartsengrafs” and its relentless guitar crunch from Jim Fairchild and Lytle, and a song which details wildlife making use of dumped technology, in the often undervalued “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”. For me though, the standout track is “Underneath the Weeping Willow”, a song which conveys a combination of loss and resignation that all of us will inevitably experience at some point in our lives, but few songwriters will ever have the delicacy and subtleness to express.
The Sophtware Slump is the album on which Lytle’s writing seemingly reached a new level of emotional resonance. While there were certainly songs on which he’d done this before, but The Sophtware Slump is the album where he did it consistently throughout each song. Grandaddy are a band with the eerie ability to alter your mood, whether you want it to be altered or not, and to be able to do that without pissing off the listener is a talent that few acts have, and Grandaddy do not take that responsibility lightly. Few acts could deliver a song about an alcoholic robot without sounding crass and heavy handed, but after listening to “Jed the Humanoid” and the later “Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)”, you can’t fail but feel empathy for not only the eponymous robot, but his short-sighted creators too. Maybe it wouldn’t occur to many acts to record a song like that, but it did to Grandaddy, and that’s just one of many of reasons that their fans hold them so dear.
The album closes with the two-punch of “Miner at the Dial-a-View” (off world miner observes his beloved with another while looking through some sort of space telescope) and the cautiously optimistic “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky”, a song which consists of just one verse, repeated four times, that still leaves you emotionally drained, but vaguely hopeful for the future. It’s a deceptively simple song to leave you on, but devastatingly effective and absolutely the right note to leave the album on, as it perfectly counterbalances the opening “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”.
The news of Grandaddy in the recording studio has been met with optimism by their fans so far, and with no small reason, as they never released an album that was anything less than enjoyable, however they also have the unenviable task of having whatever they release compared to The Sophtware Slump. If anyone can match this achievement, it’s Grandaddy.