Grandaddy – Last Place

Grandaddy is the project of Jason Lytle, originally based out of Modesto, California.  Vaguely indie rock (with more than a few synths), Grandaddy released four studio albums between 1997 and 2006 before taking a hiatus, and are now returning with their fifth LP after 11 years.  I’ve been listening to the band sporadically since high school, but am really only familiar with their 2000 epic (and best album) The Sophtware Slump.  Where that album immersed itself in a dystopian future where emotions are consumed by technology, Last Place wades much more domestic territory – it’s a middle-aged, suburbia-framed breakup album.  And while Lytle maintains a deft craft for production and arrangement, the center of this album is unfortunately lacking in hooks or emotional payoff.

Lytle’s albums are all thematic and somewhat conceptual, and he certainly knows how to move through a narrative with effective sequencing.  Therefore it comes as no surprise that Last Place makes the right move in kicking off with its two strongest tracks.  Opener “Way We Won’t” is a tight 4/4 rock track with a synth line almost as catchy as perhaps the catchiest synth line ever composed (excluding “Kids“), Lytle’s own “A.M. 180” from Grandaddy’s debut.  The track was a harbinger of a potential return to greatness, a song with a great beat and melody and lyrics concerned with the soul crushing consumerism (“Tropical smells and back to school sales / Why would we ever move”) that vaporwave has since co-opted.  The followup, “Brush with the Wild”, is another catchy, poppy synth-led rock track that makes the album’s intentions clear (“We had a thing whatever it’s called / And you were a dream, and I was a concrete wall”), but also hints at a flaw that will go on to plague much of Last Place – the lyrics.

While the first two songs treat the album’s subject matter with some degree of poetic subtlety, the middle of the album’s mundanity feels like the result of serious writer’s block while its hooks simultaneously fail to stand up to opening tracks’ strong melodies.  After the creepier, opaque and significantly less catchy “Evermore”, we’re treated to “The Boat is in the Barn”, where Lytle compares his temporarily shuttered love as being a, ahem, boat in a barn, while also delivering the album’s most cringeworthy lyric – “You were going through the photos on your phone / getting rid of me is what I figured / delete deletin’ everything that had occurred”.  The two minute fuzz rock gallop “Check Injun” (that’s an intentional misspelling of check engine, mind you) sees Lytle driving down the highway, staring at his dashboard hoping his car can make it to his exit – it’s not compelling.  The next song is titled “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” and rides a familiar three chord progression like a train right into Lytle’s overly saccharine delivery of the titular phrase.  The self-pity party continues on with “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Out of Bed” (“for warming up your heart and clearing out your head”) before we arrive at “This is the Part”, where we’re made aware that this is the part of the breakup “that some call a broken heart”.  The king of cliché-land called, or something.

While these mildly depressing, mostly boring topics don’t necessarily doom the album, they aren’t helped by the pairing of the same old 1-2 drum beats, mid-level tempos, reverb-drenched vocals and chugging piano chords time and time again.  Lytle still shows prowess behind the boards, bringing in strings, guitars and synthesizers from all sides to keep things immersive and well-layered, but all the pro tools in the world can’t save a song that’s lacking a catchy melody or progression.

The album takes a surprising turn for the better on its final three songs.  “Jed the 4th” is a callback to Sophtware Slump‘s series of “Jed” songs and, despite being another slow ballad, turns enough interesting production tricks to make this much needed break from Lytle’s personal literalism into one of the record’s strongest songs.  “A Lost Machine” is the true breakup anthem, taking six minutes to develop around a basic piano and outer-space synth structure into a powerful, grandiose, sad and romantic piece with Lytle singing (still somewhat calmly – the guy never screams) “Everything about us is a lost machine”.  And the album ends with a flashback in the stripped-back acoustic number, “Songbird Son”, that looks wistfully at the relationship’s origins in third person (“And so they made their camp / On a runaway truck ramp / Yeah, they were on the run”) before Lytle brings things back to the present, regretting the harmful things he’s done (“Message better left unsaid / Don’t say nothing”).  It’s a perfect, emotional, full-circle ending to a breakup album.

If only that album were better.  Last Place both begins and ends in great form, but the bulk, from tracks 3-9, are just too painfully banal, repetitive and self-pitying for me to really advocate for this project.  Even the final three tracks, while on point lyrically and thematically, aren’t exactly standouts relative to Grandaddy’s older work.  As much as I wanted to like this album, and truly I did, the gaping hole in the center is as big a disappointment as I’ve encountered all year.

Score: 6/13

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