When they first emerged in the late ’90s, Jason Lytle and chums were occasionally seen by the press as poor cousins of the Flaming Lips. It was a lazy comparison. While Coyne and Co are a technicolour sci-fi party band, Grandaddy were more tattered and forlorn. Lyrically, Lytle’s songs are obsessed with the intersection between mankind and technology, the impact we leave on the natural world and the derelict spaces that out-of-luck chauffeurs, wives of farmers and sad robots might someday colonise. While his two (underrated) solo albums are painfully raw, with Grandaddy he was able to be both open-hearted and playful – and unlike the Lips it never came across as arch or gimmicky.
That said, it did seem like the band had reached their natural conclusion with 2006’s ‘Just Like The Fambly Cat’ which felt, in places, as worn out as the titular mog. The band broke up. Lytle moved on. Grandaddy, it seemed, were history.
But here we are with album five, and history is very clearly on Lytle’s mind. 'Last Place' comes with a weight of expectation – not least from the band itself. This feels like a record consciously designed to restore their legacy; a worthy successor to their two masterpieces ‘The Sophtware Slump’ and ‘Sumday'. It does this by being about the most Grandaddy Grandaddy record possible.
So, there are songs about people living on top of an Ikea-type superstore (the excellent opener ‘Way We Won’t’ – a close cousin of the likes of ‘Now It’s On’); a haunting paean to the wilderness in ‘A Lost Machine’; and, in ‘Chek Injin’, an urgent old-fashioned rocker. There’s even a faintly bizarre reprise of an old b-side (‘Oh She Deleter’) and a cameo by Jed the alcoholic robot.
The first half is fabulous; an assured statement of intent. The synth-led ‘Evermore’ feels like a lost excerpt from ‘The Sophtware Slump’, while ‘The Boat Is In The Barn’ is just beautiful songwriting, Lytle documenting the loss of a relationship, while celebrating his enduring ability to love.
Where things go a bit awry is with ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore’ through ‘This Is The Part’ – a solid enough set of mid-tempo songs, but taken together they suck the momentum from the album. ‘That’s What You Get For Gettin’ Outta Bed’ subverts its sad-sack title, but ‘This Is The Part’ is just a drag, the one moment on the record that the melancholy feels more like wallowing. It’s followed up by the self-referential but blunt ‘Jed The 4th’. “You know it’s all a metaphor/for being drunk and on the floor”, Lytle sighs of his robot protagonist – an unnecessary decoding given that his lyrics have rarely been ‘I Am The Walrus’ cryptic.
Happily, ‘A Lost Machine’ brings it all back. Paranoid, epic and intimate, its slow-build grandiosity imagines an apocalyptic scenario and the lost souls caught on a "surveillance audio recorder in a dried up creek". Effects flutter in and out of the mix, but it's the shift in Lytle's vocals as he sings "every woman and child and man" that kicks you in the gut – it's just a ridiculously moving song. The intimate ‘Songbird Son’ closes the record on an acoustic whisper, but its predecessor still lingers.
Whether this is a final end remains to be seen. Lytle has hinted that an another album may follow, and that would be wonderful. But if this is it, then it's hard to imagine a finer encapsulation of the band and its themes. ‘Last Place’ is an occasionally misty-eyed but very welcome return. A broken but pretty mess.
Words: Will Salmon
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