The email came to me on July 30, from Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle. Pitchfork had run a piece “breaking” the news about Lytle’s new solo album Dept of Disappearance, even though I’d run something on it months earlier – and I sent my virtual buddy a note with a jokey comment that we should continue stickin’ it to the Man….annnnd while we’re at it, why doesn’t he send his new album to a lone blogger with no staff or advertising so she can get the jump way before it comes out on October 16?
(Hey, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.)
Pitchfork had been “plenty kind” to Grandaddy in the past, said Lytle, but “I have to say I’m happy spending a better part of my time amongst people who know Pitchfork as a farm implement rather than an Internet music site.”
And then he sent me the album.
But it came with a caveat: he asked me to guard the album with my life (of course) and not review it until – and this is key – eight listens. “It’s a real slow burner,” he wrote. “I honestly think many certain things begin creeping out after 5 -8 listens.”
So I took the album. And guarded it with all of my lives. And listened to it. Approximately 34 times. I think I’m now ready to write about it.
Jason Lytle is one of indie-rock’s greatest superheroes. Of course, he’d probably shrink awkwardly and wince reading that. After all, he’s just a dude who wears ball caps, has a room full of synths and gear, prefers to be outside on the skateboard or bike, or go hiking. But Lytle’s genius is that he’s always had big, sad, wonderful songs in him that come from those very spaces.
His California band Grandaddy were a treasure in the 90s and early 00s, but got lost to time and differences and the things that break bands. When they returned this summer for a small handful of US and European festival dates, us veterans were rapt. They brought back to us that amazing skewed psych pop, the stuff that makes your hair stand on end to hear again live.
And so that brings us to now. Well, precisely, August 17 in the backstage area of the Belgian music festival Pukkelpop, where Lytle and I were hanging out. “I just wanted [Dept of Disappearance] to be this weird, wonderful thing,” he says and I nod. Because that’s exactly what it is.
Lytle’s among a very few songwriters who writes lyrics like screenplays or short stories. He creates arcs and characters and microcosms (remember “Broken Household Appliance National Forest” or Jed’s life in the Sophtware Slump?) that are self-contained, or sometimes threaded together. It’s like he’s a fiction writer crafting stories from a room with a window that overlooks wild nature.
The album starts with “Dept of Disappearance” and a threat following an undisclosed crime. There’s a central character – a cross between a bureaucratic middle manager and something a bit rougher, maybe old-timey– who’s peeved about something GOING DOWN. “You’ll never get the clearance/I work for the department/the department of disappearance”, he blusters. It’s a thick song, there’s guitars, purging of steam pipes sounds and the swelling at the end is thematic, film-like.
“Matterhorn” – Lytle’s got a thing for mountains. Not unusual; he lives in Montana. This is a gentler, sadder song. “Ten o’clock and her life quit going” he sings softly about a death, summoning up images of the snow, a lone bird, and musing about about ascension, and what and who is left on the ground. “There’s a handwritten note he wrote in the pocket of a cold down coat, on the body of the one who has left our world/And in the note there’s a love professed, some apology about some mess/but she won’t be reading those words too soon.” Sigh at the prettysad.
“Young Saints” – My favourite track. “Really?” Lytle asks, unconvinced. But it’s got a great engine to it. “Young saints, passed out and gone again, out cold on Indian Ambien/You Are GONE.” There’s some rad, wonky timekeeping here. It’s all shuffle and interesting pacing. The lyrics are disjointed: “Crapped out Captain America. It’s sad the animals laughed at us.” After the second verse, it goes into an epic movie-theme song thread in the background – like the part in the film where something dramatic and heavyhearted is about to happen. “Ex-girlfriends, lost pets and dead friends, no they won’t be hanging out with you again/You are GONE.” It then morphs into a sort of Casiotone 80s space, and swelling AH-AHHHHHH background vocals. Which are Lytle’s. In fact, he did everything on the album.
“Hangtown” starts with typical Grandaddy-esque spacestation NORD blips, and a far-removed background vocal, then shifts into a pretty alt-country ode to the place you’re from, or where you’ve left. “The sorry cardboard cowboys try to run you out of town for trying to turn your dreams into a song.”
“Get Up and Go” – Thank gods for cheerleaders. “Get up you can do it/everything’s gonna be alright” Lytle instructs, sort of convincing himself and eventually us. Drum claps, guitars and synths. A simple, happy little thing.
“The Last Problem of the Alps” – A slower piano waltz, with the brushes on the drums – in which Lytle presents us with a mountain climber writing his memoir, recalling an incident in the Swiss Alps. Added bonus? You can hear actual real birds chirping in the background in this. “You’re right about there being stuff coming through on later listens,” I said to Lytle. “I didn’t hear the birds until about the 5th spin.” “Yeah, I didn’t either. It kind of bummed me out.”
“Willow Wand” Another uncomplicated piece. Imagine a movie fantasy forest, and a character writing a letter to someone about something that happened. In fact, there’s a lot of note- and letter-writing in this album. And that’s the beauty of a Lytle song – he not only imagines the character, but he imagines the other characters that the character is imagining. “Please forgive me for leaving my true love for dead,” he sings. Despite being lost in the forest, the willow wand gets them home.
“Somewhere There’s a Someone” Lytle’s character is lost, and looking for shelter. He’s buoyed by thoughts of his special someone, but…errr, there’s a bit of a catch. He’s never going to get to her because she’s with “someone else tonight”. In my mind, this is an end-credit fade-out from a really, really awesome bittersweet arthouse film about love in a time of difficulty. In which the lead character probably dies. The strings swell in and the character fades out.
“Chopin drives truck to the dump” A brief interlude. It’s 3am, the last guys at the speakeasy are drunk and passed out on the table, while a plinky piano plays us off into the night. That’s what it sounds like anyway.
“Your Final Setting Sun” The most accomplished of tales, a full-on film-in-a-song across 5 minutes and 9 seconds. Seventies/80s keyboard woosh and punctuations come in hard then bass, followed by sort of public access TV space sounds. It’s a tale about a kind of cult leader (or dustbowl western anti-hero?) and the person he’s telling his stories to. “And WOAH all of a sudden he uttered these words…” And the words are…another story for you to discover. It’s not clear who does what to whom, so I defer to videographer Mike Aho for the visual stimulation. “That line you see is the setting sun/I know you’ve seen a few, friend, but tonight is going to be your final one.” Stunning track.
“Gimme Click Gimme Grid” Back in old Grandaddy territory, the song harkens back to the themes in Sophtware: the struggle between modern technology and “the small simplicities”. The scene is set with Lytle singing falsetto alongside plentiful synth. Then there’s a effect-laden guitar, errr, solo of sorts, then it shifts tempos again and our hero finds beauty in the tiny hidden things. BUT! The momentary wonder is lost, a piano is found, and we’re sad again: “Then I turned to look and see the world/where there’s no sense and everything’s absurd…I ran into the woods and hid, and from then on I knew there should be…click and grid. What’s that you have to give?”
Bummer. But that’s okay, some of the best stories in life end on a beautiful, sad little note. The tide goes out. It’s nature.
An album of weird and wonderful? Yep, pretty much. And thank goodness. \m/