It’s more than a little ironic that Grandaddy, a band whose subject matter often involved burnt out, broken down things – both human and machine – ended up burnt out and broken down before they quite reached the heights that critical hype had portended for them. It was their 2000 album The Sophtware Slump that won them their major breakthrough, along with suggestions that they might be the next Radiohead. Two more albums followed, but 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat was essentially a solo album by frontman Jason Lytle, and the group imploded before its release.
Hope returned when Grandaddy reformed in 2012 to play a handful of festival shows, but it’s taken another five years for their fifth album to emerge. Listening to Last Place, it’s hard to believe that it’s been eleven years since the last Grandaddy album – despite the fact that the Jason Lytle solo albums that have appeared since them have been of a very similar mood. The classic Grandaddy sound, with fuzzily chugging verses and more propulsive synth parts in the chorus, is present from the first track, Way We Won’t. Indeed, the first few songs sound just so like the Grandaddy we remember that it almost feels as though they’ve deliberately stuck to that template so as to make sure that we haven’t forgotten what they were about.
Six tracks in, the more rambunctious Chek Injin serves as a barrier between the less adventurous start of the album, and the more rewarding second half. Chek Injin itself is perhaps most kindly described as a kind of experiment: its half-baked punkishness is pretty grating, but Lytle’s repeated “Please keep going, please keep fucking going” at least spurs listeners onwards to the rest of the album.
I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore is the thematic heart of Last Place. It’s about Lytle’s short-lived move to Portland, where the album was largely recorded, as he was going through a divorce (he has subsequently moved back to his hometown of Modesto, California), and the song’s title sums up its spirit. The album proceeds from here with in a similarly melancholic manner, and the arrangements are more sombre and warmer than most of Grandaddy’s previous output. As a band known for their commentary on humanity’s relationship with machines, with one often acting as a metaphor for the other, consciously synthetic sounds have been central to their style, but here human warmth, or its absence, seems more important.
There is however, a direct throwback to their earlier themes in Jed The 4th, which picks up on the story of the ill-fated Jed The Humanoid of Sophtware Slump fame, but the track feels rather fragmentary. A Lost Machine is more substantial, and opens with the line “Surveillance audio recorder in a dried-up creek,” which couldn’t really sound any more like a Grandaddy lyric. Here, we are re-immersed in the technology metaphors of earlier Grandaddy – ‘Everything about us is a lost machine’ is the refrain – but while this might well reflect the breakdown of Lytle’s marriage, it doesn’t say much about humanity as a whole in the way that The Sophtware Slump did.
Eleven years since the last Grandaddy album, and more than 15 since The Sophtware Slump, the way we use technology has moved on enormously, particularly with regard to connectivity. Last Place is anachronistically introverted, and its tech references don’t quite make sense in the context of 2017. If it’s understood as a more human album then it works, but it is held back a little by the vestiges of the earlier, broken down and burnt out, Grandaddy.