Jason Lytle - Dept. Of Disappearance
Here's a peculiarity; a (second) solo album from the erstwhile leader of a seminal, turn of the millennium indie rock group, who always wrote and recorded said group's albums alone. Clear? For those unfamiliar with their story – and even, I imagine, for a fair few who are – it's tough to know exactly where Grandaddy end and Jason Lytle begins. Then, as now, the creative process began and ended with him on his own, shut away with only his hopes and fears, drugs and hangovers for company. Their reunion shows this year muddied the waters still further; aside from looking and sounding like they'd never been away, turns out he's also recruited a few of his bandmates to accompany him on a short promotional tour of California, as well as a support slot with Band of Horses in December. To the casual observer, it may well be pertinent to ask "Is this Grandaddy in all but name?"
Well, yes and no. Worries about technology and its role in an uncertain future have always been fertile grounds for art in general - Isaac Asimov gifted the world robot ethics in the early 1940's - and they underpinned most of Grandaddy's best work, notably The Sophtware Slump and Sumday. They're also themes he's happy to return to here, albeit from a different perspective; if in the past he was concerned with predicting what was to come, Dept. Of Disappearance finds him living in the midst of this new reality, observing from afar. Just how far is made abundantly clear on the opening track, Lytle threatening "I'll take it to the mountain / I'll fade away into the trees."
Six years ago he upped sticks from his hometown of Modesto, California to the wilderness of Montana, a move fuelled in part by burn out, in part by his long-standing fascination with nature. The great outdoors that he now spends so much time exploring informs almost everything here; the vividness of his descriptions matching the scale of the peaks, forests, and wide-open spaces he inhabits. Escape has been his salvation, as has maturity; note the wise lament on "Gimme Click Gimme Grid' that “Many years have passed and now I see / It's all about the small simplicities."
Living the simple life perhaps comes easier with domestic harmony = he's now happily married - but as he dryly points out on 'Matterhorn', "What's wrong with the safe and warm? / What's wrong with a book and tea at night?" He takes similar pleasures in watching "a lone bird on a perch," being "up high in a frightening sky," and how "Now I cut more wood / I do my chores." He even makes time for a little life-affirming reassurance, 'Get Up and Go's "You can do it / Everything's gonna be alright" neatly reflecting the changes in a man who once complained that he'd "lost the 'go' in 'Go for it'."
Such quiet optimism and satisfaction have completely replaced the sadness and melancholy that so permeated Grandaddy's very being. The ultimate slacker response has always been a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders, and even in the depths of their post-millennial despair, he was never bitter or angry. Instead, a weary resignation was employed to combat life's undeniable hard truths and, while that hasn't changed, he's more accepting of his place in the world and how little he (or seemingly we) can change it; his response to a society "where there's no sense and everything is absurd" is to "run into the woods and hide" or "crawl into the mountains."
Musically, the album is distinctively recognisable – it even opens with some trademark robotic bleeps – and longtime fans will be instantly smitten with the songs' simple, earthy construction and emphasis on melody. It's actually not far from what you'd imagine a modern Grandaddy to sound like; there's the usual juxtaposition of raw, rugged guitars and futuristic computer effects, piano or acoustic guitar often serving as an oasis of calm. 'Get Up and Go' may be a short burst of bubblegum optimism, but elsewhere he's not afraid to string things out – six songs clock in at five minutes or longer, languidly unfurling at their own pace. The title track, all chugging guitar and staccato electronics, skittles along nervously to its halfway point before descending into a glorious, swirling coda, a trick repeated with the grandiose, euphoric 'Last Problem of the Alps'.
Baleful, arpeggio chords give way to a serene, full-blown Neil Young chorus on 'Matterhorn', the swirling synths building and building in the mix before bursting into gorgeous sunshine at their highest point. It's indicative of the contrasts that are scattered throughout; 'Willow Wand Willow Wand' and 'Hangtown' are quirky yet straightforward gems built around Lytles' whisper-light harmonies, while 'Young Saints' dark pop repeatedly switches between an off-kilter horn section, a driving beat, and deep fuzzy reverb. These last two qualities are front and centre of 'Your Final Setting Sun', a potent, sinister tale that's part David Lynch, part noir, and his most successfully ambitious work in years.
So, a happy album from a happy man then? Not quite. As grounded as he is nowadays, old habits die hard; a Jason Lytle album just wouldn't be Jason Lytle without some semblance of regret. Plaintive piano ballad 'Somewhere There's A Someone' is every bit the equal of Grandaddy favourite 'The Warming Sun', a gut wrenching reminiscence about the one who got away and proof that full on melancholy is still a fertile hunting ground for his songwriting skills. It's the one remaining hangover, the bridge between a hectic, unbalanced past, and his new calm and contented reality.
Dept. of Disappearance is by far the best of his post-breakup oeuvre, but is it as good as Sophtware or Sumday? Of course not, but then it couldn't possible be. Both those albums perfectly crystallised a mood, and were very much of their time; a snapshot of millennial tension and a band's unease. This is the sound of a man moving on and standing on his own two feet; a man who's left unwinnable battles behind, content with just getting on, living his life, and finally being happy. And in that way, it's an absolute triumph.